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Burning Man organizers order Burners to clean up their act

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“We’re simply not doing a good enough job disposing of our trash,” said Black Rock City honchos

AUGUST 28, 2017: DigitalGlobe close-up imagery of the 2017 Burning Man Festival in Northwest Nevada. Photo DigitalGlobe via Getty Images

Burning Man—the annual counterculture movement that takes place in a Nevada desert, but has its roots and cultural heart in San Francisco—may finally have some answers about its future amidst a standoff with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) over whether event organizers can secure a new ten-year permit.

Although BLM is willing to issue new permits, the agency wants to institute a series of reforms, like on-site dumpsters and fences, which will help minimize the effect of the annual bacchanal on the desert environment.

In June, BLM released its final Environmental Impact Statement prescribing the likely future of the annual desert revel. Among the highlights:

  • BLM is prescribing a population cap of “no more than 80,000 total attendees, including event participants, staff, and volunteers” every year for the entire ten-year permit period.
  • Under the suggested plan “there would be a phased closure area, which would include a 9,570-acre footprint up to build week and after the event. During build week and the Event, the Closure Area footprint would be 14,330 acres.”
  • Burners would be expected to clean up after themselves: “After the event, playa restoration crew would clean the area within the perimeter fence. Site cleanup would begin on the Wednesday after Labor Day and would continue for up to 33 days after the Event. Structure disassembly and general on-site garbage removal would begin approximately four days after Labor Day and would be completed within 21 days”
  • BLM anticipates a host of potential problems related to the annual Burn, everything from the possibility that “light, noise, structures, and human presence could alter bat and avian foraging or movement” to the danger of “increased visitation, unauthorized artifact collection, vandalism, damage from vehicle use” to Native American religious sites. However, the agency also predicts that the population cap will help mitigate the problems.

In the permit application, Burning Man host organization Black Rock City, LLC, wanted a population cap of 100,000 and to increase the size of the event footprint to 14,714 acres.

In 2017, the event was capped at 70,000 people, but this did not include staff, meaning that the final Burn population was more than 79,000. The proposed 80,000 cap keeps Burning Man roughly the same size but hinders future expansion.

Burning Man head honchos (speaking anonymously via the official Burning Man blog) warned Burners in April that the conflict with the feds could mean the “end of the event as we know it.” Organizers said that changes like trash cans and security screenings would be “in direct conflict with our community’s core principles and would forever negatively change the fabric” of the community.

After the final report dropped, the response from organizers seemed cautiously optimistic, noting that Burner can escape the imposition of playa dumpsters by cleaning up after themselves instead.

“We’re simply not doing a good enough job disposing of our trash after we leave Black Rock City,” the blog warns, putting Burners on notice that “trash cannot be left in a pile on the roadside in the Paiute Nation; it can NOT be left at an I-80 or any other public highway rest stop or dumpster; it can NOT be left in the trash behind a business in Reno, Sparks, Winnemucca, Nevada City, Salt Lake City or any spot on your drive home.”

Similarly, if Burning Man manages its perimeter and keeps non-ticket holders from sneaking in, “there will be no need for impenetrable physical barriers around Black Rock City.”

If the festival cannot self-regulate, then authorities will have to come in and make change the hard way.

This year’s Burner bash in the desert is scheduled for August 25 through September 2. Tickets are $425 for most participants.