Some supporters of the Burning Man counter-culture festival are complaining about new restrictions the federal government is proposing for the event.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management held a public meeting Monday on a draft environmental impact statement that includes proposals to step up security searches and erect new barriers around the event if it is permitted to expand its capacity to 100,000.
Several festival supporters among the nearly 200 people who jammed the meeting room said the plans would cause more harm to the environment than existing requirements, including mandating trash containers that would attract an accumulation of garbage at the site where “leave no trace” is a mantra and most festival-goers are dedicated to packing in and out their own trash.
The potential measures are included as part of its consideration of a new 10-year special use permit for the temporary community known as Black Rock City on the Black Rock Desert, 100 miles (160 kilometers) north of Reno.
Moved from San Francisco’s Baker Beach in 1990, the celebration of creativity and free-expression is dubbed the largest outdoor arts festival in North America, with drum circles, decorated art cars, guerilla theatrics and colorful theme camps. Clothing is optional.
Organizers say the bureau’s proposed changes would add $10 million annually to the costs of the weeklong event that culminates Labor Day weekend with the burning of a towering wooden effigy.
Another public meeting was scheduled Tuesday night in Lovelock, Nevada.
“BLM envisions you under surveillance in Black Rock City, surrounded not by scenic landscape but by impenetrable concrete barriers, where dumpsters replace goodwill, where your actions are monitored by police and security guards … where you are greeted by a constitutional violation,” said Marmee Benson, Burning Man’s associate director of government affairs.
“We see Black Rock City as an imperfect but magnificent cultural epicenter, characterized by kindness and generosity, creativity, self-expression,” she said. “Where people come together to celebrate the human spirt and celebrate our public lands.”
Frederick Osterhagen, a “leave no trace” instructor from Carson City who’s been volunteering to pick up trash on the playa for 30 years, vouched for the group’s environmental credentials.
Before Burning Man arrived, he said he would gather three or four big garbage bags full of trash on a single visit. “The last time I did it, I got less than a bucket full,” Osterhagen said.
Several speakers said the agency was creating solutions for problems that don’t exist. Some shouted insults at Bureau Field Manager Mark Hall.
But Patrick Donnelly, Nevada state director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said his national environmental group supports many of the “sensible measures” proposed to better protect the desert ecosystem.
“In 15 years of attending public meetings on environmental review documents, I’ve never seen BLM be quite so accommodating to people shouting, interrupting and heckling,” Donnelly said.
“We’re dealing with a public lands user group that has had few controls put on their behaviors for decades and they want to see it stay that way,” he said. “Burning Man is the single largest gathering on any sort of public lands in the country and needs to be treated the same way we treat a gold mine, an oilfield or an off-road vehicle race.”
Hall said the agency intends to issue a final impact statement in July after deciding on options to either boost capacity to 100,000, keep it at the current 80,000, cut it to 50,000 or deny a special use permit altogether. He indicated the no-permit alternative is unlikely to prevail.