A standoff with the federal government is putting the future of Burning Man at risk.
The problems started when the event’s organizer, Burning Man Project, applied for a permit from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to hold the event in northern Nevada’s Black Rock Desert for another 10 years.
Then the BLM responded.
The agency, which is part of the Interior Department and manages public lands, issued a draft of the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) required for the permit on March 15.
BLM wants 10 miles of concrete barriers installed on the event’s perimeter for security, a requirement that organizers install dumpsters and hire companies to haul out the trash and authorities in place to conduct vehicle searches at the gate.
The decision didn’t sit well with Burners.
“Many of the measures recommended by BLM are unreasonable, untenable, attempt to solve problems that don’t exist, and/or create new (and worse) problems,” Burning Man Project wrote in a fact-checking statement.
“Altogether, these requirements would fundamentally change the operational integrity and cultural fabric of Black Rock City, and would spell the end of the event as we know it,” the group added. “This is not an exaggeration.”
The organizers encouraged Burners and their supporters to submit comments to the agency by a Monday deadline.
“I get they’re trying to save the land but the majority of burners aren’t a——-,” Jessyca Jones, 29, from Salem, Oregon, told ABC News in a message. “We pack it in, pack it out. We have crews literally SCOURING the ground to pick up the tiniest bits of things someone left behind just to make sure the playa is left at its best. We have a trash fence. We have us to keep the perimeter safe.”
Burning Man is a “Leave No Trace” event (organizers and hardcore burners do not like the term “festival”), where “camps” form their own communities for a week, share resources and create art together. At the end, there should be no evidence of what happened and the land is supposed to be returned to a cleaner state than before.
The event has become such a big phenomenon that it’s developed its own vocabulary, compiled in a glossary on its site. A playa, for example, is defined as: “The Spanish word for beach, also used to describe dry lake beds in the American west such as the Black Rock Desert.”
It’s been around for nearly three decades, but the last few years have seen an influx of hipsters and tech moguls and their followers, which have made the event a cultural phenomenon or target, depending on who is opining.
The conditions of the permit wouldn’t affect this year’s conclave, which is slated for Aug. 25 to Sept. 2. It could potentially derail next year’s event, though.
But central to the ethos of the week is sense of self-governance, which is why the new government proposals are particularly ingratiating.
“We are our own city. We have no government, and I’m not saying it would work in everyday, but keeping the feds as far away as possible from encroaching into the event has worked OK thus far. Now, that’s not to say they aren’t present every year. But they’ve not built a f—— wall around us and it’s been just fine,” Jones said.
The tension with the government has taken some longtime Burners by surprise.
“They, Burning Man Project, has worked with BLM together for so long, it’s generally been a very collaborative relationship,” said Cabe Franklin, a New Yorker who has attended 14 times since 2000.
He said he knows that it might be hard for some non-Burners to understand why trash cans are a contentious issue.
“Once you have trash cans, people just dump their trash, people fill them up and they overflow,” Franklin said. “If you know there’s not a trash can you don’t walk out of your tent with your trash. You leave it inside and leave with it. This may sound silly but, say you take cereal, before you go, you take the bag out of the box. You get rid of a lot of excess packaging even if [it’s from] before you get there.”
The government also has concerns about lights being used at night, including large work lights, high-intensity lasers and search lights, which BLM said can disrupt birds and other wildlife, and contribute to light pollution. As a result, the potential to ban or curtail some of the lighting is on the table.
Burning Man Project isn’t having it.
“Back on Earth, Burning Man has a robust nightlife which, combined with the artists’ technical creativity and the darkness of the playa, heavily features light-based artwork,” the organization said in its fact-checking statement. “The nighttime Black Rock City skyline has become a hallmark of the Burning Man experience, including innumerable LEDs, lasers, and searchlights throughout the city.”
It denies that the night lights affect the local fowl population. “In fact, birds are rarely encountered on the playa in hot summer months,” they said.
Organizers also call the idea of vehicle searches at the gate “unconstitional” and unnecessary.
“For many years, BRC has published and widely publicized a list of prohibited items that are not allowed into Black Rock City, including weapons, narcotics and fireworks. We enforce these restrictions when items are discovered in vehicles during entry,” Burning Man Project said.