Burning Man is butting heads with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) over new measures that festival organizers fear will change the face of the event forever. On March 15th, while seeking a new 10-year permit from the BLM to continue operations in the Black Rock Desert of Northern Nevada (where the festival has been held annually for the past 29 years) The Burning Man project received a 372-page Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) which would require them to take on significant new measures in order to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act. Changes include reducing of the amount of light pollution produced by the event at night, providing dumpsters inside Black Rock City along Gate Road, paying for the maintenance of County Road 34 (the sole road leading to the event’s entrance), and implementing BLM-approved private security to screen vehicles, participants, vendors, contractors, staff, and volunteers entering the playa for drugs or illegal weapons.
These are significant changes for a temporary city and conscious community that has acted with almost complete autonomy for decades. The Burn would essentially go from a government-free utopia to a government-administered party, in which permits could be pulled if the vast deserts of Nevada glowed too brightly at night. Unsurprisingly, Burning Man organizers believe that these changes might fundamentally shift the culture they’ve strived to create, and may eventually lead to the end of the event itself.
“The changes do not factor in our 28-year operational track record and commitment to environmental protection,” Burning Man’s leadership team wrote in a blog post. “Other changes rely on improbable or impossible conditions and many more lack sufficient data. Some of BLM’s proposals are in direct conflict with our community’s core principles and would forever negatively change the fabric of the Burning Man event, if not outright kill it.”
Burning Man organizers turned to the event’s community last month and urged Burners to contact the BLM and submit feedback while the draft EIS was still under consideration. While the window for public comment is now closed, it should be noted that the Bureau of Land Management takes public feedback very seriously in preparation of the final EIS, which is due later this summer.
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Unsurprisingly, considering the size and scope of the event itself, the situation demands nuance — there are strong arguments to be made on both sides of the debate. While the organization does a fantastic job of racing to self-correct when mistakes are made, the BLM has identified legitimate issues that the festival needs to mitigate. For instance, Burning Man prides itself in being one of the largest Leave No Trace events in the world — it’s in the event’s ethos that as a sign of respect to Black Rock City attendees clean up after themselves. While no one realistically expects everyone to comply, Burning Man has a pretty good track record on keeping the Black Rock desert clean.
The problem is that this commitment to waste disposal doesn’t seem to extend past the playa’s borders. Cities near the Burn have to deal with the fallout and have previously requested financial support for infrastructure needs after Burning Man ends each year.
“Take a drive around Reno in the days following Burning Man, and you will easily see illegally dumped trash just about everywhere,” Reno resident Garrett York told SF Gate in a report about Burning Man trash ending up in nearby cities. “It’ll be covered in playa dust.”
Without addressing this aspect directly, Burning Man’s leaders defended their overarching mentality, writing: “Our history has proven that if you emphasize the LNT (Leave No Trace) ethic and don’t offer on-site waste removal support resources, people won’t come to expect the organizing entity to handle their other needs as well. This is part of what pulls community together.”
Regarding BLM’s private security requirements, Burning Man organizers told SF Gate that, “This BLM requirement constitutes search and seizure without just cause — the ‘probable cause’ in this case is solely and exclusively the fact that a participant is going to Burning Man, and we believe this would constitute a violation of the 4th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.”
They may have a point here, particularly because there’s a lack of precedent. Government organizations don’t historically control festival entrances. It’s a task normally handled by private security.
All of these pinch points that may be chalked up to growing pains. The once fully-hippified mini-city is rapidly morphing into a booming metropolis — recent permit requests show that Burning Man is seeking the rights to expand its temporary community to 100,000 people. The SF Gate reports that 44 people were arrested at last year’s Burn, which is less than one person per one-thousand per day. Most of these were drug offenses from possession to trafficking, along with an armed carjacking, a death, domestic battery, and the endangerment of a child. Obviously, these are real issues that the festival needs to address, but the crime rate doesn’t seem to be outpacing the general population in a way that would imply criminality being somehow endemic to the event.
Other changes proposed by the BLM are less about impacting the ethos of the event and more about its financial viability. The bureau has a policy of taking a percentage of a permit holder’s gross revenue. Additionally, the BLM has attempted to change Burning Man Project’s permit application by extending the duration of the event from eight days to nine and a half (to allow for delays, cleaning, and camp breakdown), without consulting or notifying the organization prior — which would inevitably result in increased event costs to the Burning Man Project.
“Burning Man’s latest cost estimates for BLM’s recommended ‘mitigations’ and ‘monitoring’ would amount to nearly $20 million per year,” the post by the leadership team asserted, “which would cause ticket prices to increase by approximately $286 per person and severely impact the Burning Man organization.”
Regardless of which side you take in the disagreement between BLM and BRC, the implication is clear: no matter how much you strive to create your utopia, no matter how far you venture into hot, dusty, empty desert, if you’re in the United States you’re still at the mercy of the government and its various departments. It’s a situation as old as time, a direct allegory for the foundation of the United States itself, and a conflict that may just change one of the country’s most iconic festivals forever.