Negotiations for a new permit have stalled over the environmental impact of huge crowds in the Nevada desert.
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Metamorphosis is an apt theme for the 2019 edition of Burning Man, the annual libertarian arts festival held in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. As organizers prepare for the weeklong gathering that kicks off on Aug. 25, they’re also grappling with the possibility of radical changes that they say could ultimately force them to discontinue the 33-year-old event.
Burning Man Project, the nonprofit that organizes the festival, has been negotiating for three years with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management for a 10-year permit. The current one expired in 2016; so far, no agreement has been reached. Event organizers say the government wants to impose conditions that are cumbersome and unnecessary, which would force changes that betray the spirit of the festival.
The problem, the feds say, is size. Burning Man’s attendance has swelled to nearly 80,000, including about 10,000 staffers and volunteers, from the 80 or so people who attended the first summer solstice bonfire party in 1986. That inaugural event was held on San Francisco’s Baker Beach. By 1990 the growing crowds couldn’t be safely accommodated on the beach, so the bonfire moved to the Nevada desert, according to Marian Goodell, a founding board member who was recently named chief executive officer of the project.
The festival’s popularity has challenged some of its core precepts, especially the one about “leaving no trace.” The strain that Burning Man has placed on the site has led the BLM, an agency within the U.S. Department of the Interior that manages 245 million acres of public lands, to assess the festival’s environmental impact and to develop requirements that will be a condition of any new permit.
According to a draft environmental impact statement published in March, the BLM is concerned with air and light pollution, as well as a range of public-health risks such as sexual assault, drug overdoses, firearms, and traffic. The agency could consider increasing the size of the venue or, more remotely, denying a new permit. The BLM could also mandate that organizers bring in dumpsters for trash, place concrete traffic barriers around Black Rock City for added security, and hire private security services to search attendees for weapons and drugs. “We won’t do Burning Man if it has to have dumpsters at the gate, cement barriers, or searches by third-party security forces,” Goodell says.
The government says security and environmental measures are needed. The BLM also says it’s increasingly concerned the event could become a terrorism target. Currently, government staffing for emergency responses is limited because Burning Man overlaps with hurricane season, the bureau says.
Marnee Benson, Burning Man’s associate director of government affairs, says the cost of the proposed measures could reach $20 million. That’s in addition to an annual budget of about $40 million. She suggests the bureau’s requests are motivated more by greed than by environmental concerns. The agency, she says, has approved new oil and gas leases, including the controversial Dakota Access pipeline that runs through the Standing Rock American Indian reservation. A BLM spokesperson declined to comment on Benson’s assertion.
Each year the BLM collects 3% of the event’s gross revenue, equal to more than $1.25 million in 2018, according to Benson. The group pays the BLM permit fees of $3.5 million annually. State and local governments also collect $1 million for agency services, such as the Nevada Highway Patrol and the Pershing County Sheriff. And Burning Man pays Nevada about $3 million for the state’s live entertainment tax. A BLM spokesperson declined to comment on the figures.
Bob Abbey, a former national director of the bureau who advises Burning Man on policy issues, describes the BLM’s draft impact statement as flawed in that it approaches the event as if it had never before taken place. “Burning Man has been held at the same location on public land for almost three decades,” he says. “Yet it is now deemed by some within the Interior Department to be more of an environmental threat than offshore drilling.” A BLM spokesperson declined to comment.
The BLM’s decision is due shortly before this year’s event opens. Should the organization agree to the BLM’s conditions, changes would be phased in starting with the 2020 festival, according to Mark Hall, the Bureau of Land Management’s field officer overseeing the environmental impact statement.
At recent town hall meetings in Reno and Lovelock, Nev., co-organized with the BLM, business owners and community stakeholders have expressed support for Burning Man, saying it’s had a positive impact on the local economies “Every year, 20,000 Burners coming from 34 countries during the week, bringing in $11 million revenue just to the airport,” Brian Kulpin, head of marketing and public affairs for the Reno-Tahoe International Airport, said at an April 8 meeting. “We appreciate even the playa dust they bring in.”
Ultimately, Burning Man CEO Goodell says that while she expects a reasonable decision, the organization will be prepared for any outcome: “We would be very sad to move, but we would know where to go.”