Drama between the Burning Man organization and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management is nothing new. But as the festival has ballooned in size over the last decade, tensions are running high around the latest approval process for Burning Man's 10-year permit.
The use of public land for the annual festival is not a foregone conclusion, as BLM is reminding festival organizers this year. And in March, the federal agency presented a draft environmental impact report to the public which included a number of highly controversial mitigation recommendations including a concrete perimeter fence and a slew of trash dumpsters near the festival gates — something that many see as antithetical to the "leave no trace" motto.
From the federal government's standpoint, the festival's 70,000 attendees are not without impact on the Black Rock Desert, and the occasion of the 10-year permit issuance is the opportunity to force changes and potentially reign in what's become a huge tourist attraction. The draft report cited harms to migratory birds and local vegetation, as well as impacts on wetland areas and national historic trails.
Other potential mitigation recommendations included a cap on attendance, a new cap on vehicles, mandatory vehicle searches, and a ban on high-powered lasers and searchlights.
"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," writes Burning Man.
The draft report, which is expected to be published in a final form for public comment on June 14, cites the difference between the myth and the reality of the "leave no trace" ethos, with plenty of cleanup needed over the years for what gets left behind — typically done by Burning Man staff. Thousands of dusty bicycles have been left on the playa in recent years, and illegal dumping along the highways leading out of the desert is also a problem. One other notable issue from 2018 was that 747 "art car" which stuck around for a few extra weeks because its owners were trying to secure a nearby place they could stow it.
The purpose of the concrete barrier fence, which would replace the so-called "trash fence" that catches wind-blown debris at the edges of the playa, is the most curious question. The BLM's report takes up the issue of trespassing and people sneaking in to the festival — which a permanent concrete wall would solve? — as a reason for the perimeter wall, which is estimated to cost $3 million and represent 19 million pounds of "trace."
Recommendations on capping attendance include limiting the number to 80,000 — which is approximately how many came in 2018 — or reducing attendance back down to 50,000, which is what it was a decade ago.
BLM is currently reviewing over 2,000 letters it received as public comment, something that was encouraged by Burning Man's organizers.
The Reno Gazette-Journal reports that no major changes are likely for this year's festival, given that it's now less than 100 days away, though changes could be phased once the final recommendations have been made. Burning Man CEO Marian Goodell tells the paper that the organization has "assurance" from BLM that they will, in fact, get their permit.
As the SF Business Times notes, if by chance no permit was issued, BLM would have to contend with thousands of Burners showing up anyway.