Thursday, May 20, 2010

BLM faces complaint on NV off-road race, bones

BLM managers have poorly handled the damaging 'Vegas-Reno' off-road race

Las Vegas Review-Journal article, June 4.

Follow up to Abuses prompt call for reforms of BLM-Nevada, May 17

by April Reese, E&E reporter

LAS VEGAS -- Bureau of Land Management officials in Nevada violated agency protocols by allowing a Las Vegas-to-Reno off-highway vehicle (OHV) race to cut through sensitive areas and failing to address the resulting damage, according to a complaint filed last week by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

The complaint, based on claims made by a former BLM employee, argues that the agency's Tonapah, Nev., field office mismanaged natural resources in its handling of the three-day race through western Nevada's high desert region.

The race attracted 270 OHV enthusiasts last year. The 1,000-mile route, which required approval from BLM, crossed public lands in five counties, including endangered desert tortoise habitat in the Mojave and Great Basin deserts, according to the complaint. PEER also alleges that BLM field office manager Tom Seley ignored federal law and OHV permitting stipulations in approving the race route.

The former BLM employee, Stacey Antilla, joined the Tonopah office in March 2009 to oversee recreation planning for the area, a job that primarily involved preparing for the annual August OHV race -- the longest OHV race in the country. But she resigned in March after a series of disagreements with Seley over last year's race route and a later incident involving the removal of skeletal remains by a tourist at another site.

"There were a lot of things I was being told to do that in my opinion were illegal and not right," said Antilla, who now manages a restaurant in Dallas.

In a May 17 letter to BLM Director Bob Abbey, PEER Southwest Director Daniel Patterson, also a former BLM employee, said the Tonapah field office had committed "serious violations of environmental and cultural conservation requirements on the Vegas-to-Reno ORV race and at the Rhyolite ghost town."

He asked Abbey to investigate the incidents, take steps to correct the alleged violations, and review "the quality of the management" in the Tonapah field office.

According to PEER's complaint, BLM allowed the OHV race to be routed through ecologically sensitive desert areas instead of keeping it on established roads. The agency also allowed heavy equipment into a desert river that harbors endangered species and did not address the resulting damage after the race was completed.

In an interview, Antilla said she became concerned about OHV impacts to natural and cultural resources after analyzing the route proposed by race organizers to the Tonapah field office. The course was designed to avoid roads that local landowners wanted to keep free of OHVs. As a result, Antilla said, the route was set to traverse large areas of open desert, potentially causing significant damage to wildlife habitat and vegetation.

But, she said, her concerns fell on deaf ears.

"The regulations and the policies that we're supposed to follow weren't followed," she said. "I don't feel that I was able to do my job. My professional opinions were not respected in Nevada."

None of her recommendations were heeded, Antilla said.

Seley declined to comment on Antilla's allegations. "I'm in the middle of preparing a response," he said.

But Seley noted that the design of last year's racecourse, which included more loops and more mileage than in past years, was to help planners "shift the race around" to limit resource damage in the future. "It gives us more options," he said.

Seley said BLM made some revisions to the route before the race, but he would not disclose what the changes were or the reasons behind them.

He said this year's Vegas-to-Reno race route is being reviewed by BLM's Carson City district office.

Casey Folks, who owns Best In The Desert Inc. Racing in Las Vegas and organizes the race each year, said he received the required event permit and the race route he designed took into account potential resource impacts.

"My course was environmentally sound," he said. "It was on roads. In this day and age, there is no virgin country."

Laura Cunningham of Basin and Range Watch, a Nevada-based environmental group that has been monitoring impacts from the race for years, said the 2009 route "was not well designed." It crossed through mule deer and pronghorn habitat in a mountainous area in central Nevada and traversed a wetland and left deep ruts in some trails, she said.

"The intense type of road use leaves these routes in degraded shape for other outdoor users," she said.

Skeletal remains

The PEER complaint also alleges that a BLM official in the Tonapah office allowed a tourist to dig up and remove an arm bone found at the ghost town of Rhyolite near Death Valley National Park.

According to Antilla, who was not in the office when the incident occurred, a BLM official instructed a volunteer at the Rhyolite site to give the bone to the tourist after deeming it was probably a fake. Antilla said she asked BLM law enforcement officers to look into the matter, but they declined.

Soon after that incident, agency managers threatened Antilla with suspension, she said.

While Antilla declined to speculate on whether politics were involved in BLM's handling of the OHV race, which generates revenue for local businesses in the rural counties it traverses, local landowner Kevin Emmerich said he believes BLM officials are under political pressure from local supporters of the annual race, which draws hundreds of ATV, dune buggy and Jeep riders to the area each summer.

"It can get really political," said Emmerich, a former National Park Service employee who lives in the Mojave Desert near Beatty, Nev., about two hours north of Las Vegas. "It seems like some BLM employees are really frustrated. I think sometimes there can be political pressure in the state of Nevada."

Emmerich said he does not have a problem with Seley, who he said has been "very upfront" with landowners in discussing concerns about OHV use in the remote area.

Antilla said she would like to see OHV riders and BLM work to create race routes that are challenging for participants but also protect resources.

"I'd like to think they could continue their activity out there without damaging other resources," she said.

- from Land Letter

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