LOS ANGELES – The U.S. Bureau of Land Management said Friday its staff failed to properly monitor and prepare for an off-road race in which eight spectators were killed in the Mojave Desert.
Only one ranger was working in the 500,000-acre expanse on the day of the crash, and it was for routine patrol, not race monitoring, an internal review found.
He visited a portion of the course before the 200-mile race and "did not conduct monitoring specific to the event," the review states.
The primary finding of the review was that BLM staff in the Barstow, Calif., field office did not follow agency procedures in granting permits to the race promoters. It found there was no direct communication between recreation and law enforcement staff about the event.
BLM declined to name staff members responsible for permitting the event, and the ranger, citing privacy laws. Appropriate personnel actions were being taken, the agency said without specifying.
BLM Director Bob Abbey said the agency had taken steps to improve oversight of recreational events, including providing adequate staffing and requiring more oversight to ensure its employees are complying with agency rules.
"My clear directive is: if our field offices cannot fulfill or complete all the required steps in authorizing this event, then no permit will be issued," Abbey said in a statement.
Eight people were killed and a dozen others were injured Aug. 14 when a competing truck smashed into the crowd and ended up on its roof in the Johnson Valley off-highway vehicle area. Video posted on the Internet showed fans crowding the edge of the narrow dirt course as trucks sped by.
A permit issued for the race showed spectator safety was the responsibility of promoter Mojave Desert Racing, whose own rules require fans to stay 100 feet away from the course.
The people who run Mojave Desert Racing have refused to speak publicly about their handling of the event.
BLM said that since the tragedy, it has authorized more than a dozen off-road events with appropriate law enforcement and management staff oversight, while denying four permits either because there wasn't enough time to process the applications or because the promoters were not insured.
The agency said that over the past decade, the number of permits issued for off-road events increased by 27 percent to meet demand for the popular gatherings in the desert. This year alone, BLM issued 130 permits for events in the California desert, most of them administered by the Barstow field office. At the same time, the number of staff responsible for handling the permits dropped from 32 to 19.
With fewer people handling a bigger workload, BLM said the staff streamlined the permitting process and promoters assumed more oversight responsibilities at the races.
BLM has 38 rangers to patrol about 11 million acres of public lands, seven of them assigned to the Barstow field office. On the day of the California 200 race, six of those rangers were out sick, on vacation, medical leave or other assignments, leaving just one ranger to patrol the race.
BLM said the promoter estimated the race would attract about 200-300 people, but the crowd ballooned to 1,500 to 2,000.
"The ranger was on site monitoring the whole area, but he was trying to cover a huge area on his own," said Jan Bedrosian, BLM deputy state director of external affairs. "He was definitely there and he performed heroically."
An environmental group that advocates on behalf of government employees said the report reveals the Barstow office was essentially letting promoters run the races.
"This situation is really out of control and the agency needs to check itself and stop permitting so much off-road use that they clearly cannot control," said Daniel Patterson, Southwest director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
Patterson said sending all available rangers to oversee off-road areas is not the solution, either, because it leaves millions of acres of public lands elsewhere unguarded.
The review found that the Barstow office issued a permit to MDR even though it submitted its permit application two months before the event and only paid the minimum $95 fee. Applications must be submitted at least six months before an event so administrators and promoters have the time to set guidelines for spectator safety, crowd management, and other operating details.
Under new policies, BLM said it will require promoters to pay the agency for overseeing permits that take more than 50 hours of staff time. The review found that the Barstow office never sought to recover such costs.
A group representing businesses catered to off-road racing says cost recovery will likely be passed on to promoters and eventually race participants.
A spokeswoman for the Off-Road Business Association said its approximately 400 members will do what it takes to keep the races safe, but she added that they are worried about the higher costs.
"I'd hate to see it get expensive," Megan Grossglass said. "There's a race in the Johnson Valley almost every weekend of the year. If that can't continue, people are not going to buy as many off-road products."