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Burning Man organizers warn of ‘end of the event as we know it’

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Conflict with Bureau of Land Management threatens Burning Man with burnout

A rabbit-shaped car at Burning Man.
Burning Man 2010.
Photo by Christopher Michel.

Organizers for Burning Man, the annual counterculture festival that began in San Francisco and annually assembles in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, claim that oversight by the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) might stamp out the nearly 33-year Burning Man tradition.

In a nearly 7,000-word-blog post on the main Burning Man site, top Burners (identified only as “the official voice of the Burning Man organization”) warned playa-goers that an ongoing conflict with BLM could “spell the end of the event as we know it.”

Burning Man’s battle with the feds began in March, when BLM, a division of the Department of the Interior, released its two-part Draft Environmental Impact Statement assessing the effects of the festival on the Black Rock environment in response to organizers’ request for a new 10-year permit.

While the federal government plans to issue permits, BLM managers demand a number of changes to the way Burning Man flies its freak flag each year.

The report cites the annual gathering as harmful on a myriad of issues ranging from migratory birds and local vegetation—including the concern that Burners may accidentally “increase potential for weed establishment and spread along travel routes”—to wetlands areas and national historic trails.

Many of the affected resources exist far from Black Rock City itself, but still suffer from the annual pilgrimage of tens of thousands of people to Burning Man from nearby regions.

The playa itself is part of the federally protected Black Rock Desert Wilderness. According to BLM:

The Black Rock Desert Wilderness is a large desert playa and the remains of prehistoric Lake Lahontan. At 314,835 acres, the area is one of the largest protected desert playas in the United States. Vistas go on for miles and mirages sneak up from all sides of the desert floor. The vastness and overwhelming feeling of isolation in this wilderness create an experience unlike any other.

In response to these problems, the bureau report lays out five potential scenarios for how Burning Man may have to change, which include demands like caps on annual growth, requirements that the festival area be fenced, and that a limited number of licenses be issued for art installations and “mutant vehicles” on the premises.

The draft report also considers the potential of not issuing Burning Man permits at all. However, BLM is realistic about what would happen in such a scenario:

A no-event alternative would likely result in an unauthorized gathering of thousands of people. [...] A closure order for the event site in the affected environment may be necessary to prevent unauthorized group use of the Black Rock Playa. This alternative would still require a BLM agency presence to ensure the activities [...] do not threaten natural and cultural resources and public health and safety.

A “temple” at Burning Man. Photo by Thomas Ullrich/public domain

In response to the draft statement, Burning Man organizers called the BLM recommendations “egregious mitigations” that were “in direct conflict with our community’s core principles and would forever negatively change the fabric” of the gathering.

The group particularly object to the possibility of having to install permanent dumpsters and of having to pay for the cost of roadside cleanup.

Now the festival has asked “Burners, the general public, business owners, civic leaders, and in particular subject matter experts” (italics in original) to push back on the draft with comments agitating for permits that leave the burn as-is.

“Cost estimates for BLM’s recommended mitigations [...] would amount to nearly $20 million per year, which would cause ticket prices to increase by approximately $286 per person,” warn Burning Man organizers.

For this year’s Burner bacchanalia in the desert, scheduled for August 25 through September 2, tickets are $425 for most participants.

This is not the first time that Burning Man has butted heads with government over land use. The first few years of Burning Man, from 1986 to 1991, happened on Baker Beach in San Francisco. Burners fled for the desert after park monitors tried to prevent the ritual immolation of the giant effigy in 1990.

Roughly 80,000 people now attend the Black Rock desert gathering every year, with construction of each Black Rock City beginning weeks ahead of time.