Burning Man wants permission to grow to 100,000 people in the coming years
Dawn brings all the colors to the Black Rock Desert in this time-lapse video as early participants gather for Burning Man on Sunday, Aug. 27, 2017. Jenny Kane/RGJ
Despite complaints from some critics that Burning Man is already too big, the organization may make their main event even bigger.
As Nevada Bureau of Land Management officials review how the annual, weeklong arts festival has affected the surrounding environment and communities since it moved to Nevada in 1990, Burning Man is proposing that the BLM allow the event to grow to 100,000 people in the future.
BLM officials and Burning Man organizers met with locals this week from Gerlach, Reno and Lovelock, the three communities most affected by Burning Man, to hear their concerns about growth.
The event, which is currently capped at 68,000 participants, already attracts closer to 80,000 people when counting government officials, service vendors and some volunteers. Burning Man organizers are asking the BLM to hike the cap to at least 80,000, at most 100,000 -- though the growth would be long-term, not immediate.
"I'm just concerned because, when I moved here 45 years ago, (the Black Rock Desert) was just the most remote, least visited area. That area was so full of solitude, it was a wilderness with a small 'w'," said Karen Boeger, a concerned conservationist from Reno who spoke with BLM officials at a public comment hearing this week.
Gerlach residents wanted issues resolved with traffic and trash along Nevada State Route 447 before an expansion. They also expressed concerns about Burning Man's use of the town's local water supply. Reno residents were more curious about the timeline, and how else the event would change, whereas Lovelock residents fretted over the limited resources that they lend to Burning Man, particularly law enforcement and court services.
"There’s a lack of benefit for the community in Pershing County. While (Burning Man organizers) noted that they bring $50 million to the state, Pershing County sees not even half of a percent of that," said Pershing County Sheriff Jerry Allen. "Nothing said last night that would benefit Pershing County."
Not only would the event's population surge, but so too would many other elements of the celebration, according to the proposed changes by Burning Man organizers.
Organizers are asking for more room for the event, but they are also asking to close more land off before, during and after the event, about 22.6 square-miles — an increase of more than 500 acres.
Organizers would also expect to see an increase in the number of art pieces, closer to 400 compared to the 330 featured in 2017. They also want to allow nearly 2,000 theme camps (compared to the 1,100 this past year), and closer to 1,000 mutant vehicles (compared to 600 since 2009).
Many Burners share the anxiety over growth because the culture has changed drastically over three-plus decades.
Burning Man began in 1986 in the San Francisco Bay Area with no more than a few dozen locals and moved four years later to the Black Rock Desert, where a few hundred people attended initially. In 1991, the BLM issued its first permit for the event and began monitoring the safety, security and health practices on-site.
Since, the event has become a part of mainstream pop culture, drawing the likes of international models, Hollywood A-listers and Silicon Valley tech titans. It has become a more restrictive event in the face of numerous severe injuries and several fatalities, including one last year in which a man ran into the fire during the burning of the event's central effigy.
Finding tickets to the event — despite the price tags of up to $1,000 for a single ticket — also has become a desperate effort for Burners because the event continues to sell out, year after year, since 2011.
A lasting impact
So, why is Burning Man asking to grow now?
The event already has surpassed the population cap, and the organization felt it necessary to address the population considering that the BLM is currently working on new terms that will dictate the next decade of the event.
Those terms, summarized in several hundred pages of a an "environmental impact statement," will be based on a series of environmental studies that look at air quality, soil, noise, light pollution, water, flora and fauna. Thus far there has been little evidence of any lasting environmental impact on the playa, except the flatness of the surface and loosening of dust, but the last environmental assessment was conducted in 2011.
The purpose of the impact statement is to ensure that the event does not have a lasting, negative impact on the playa, surrounding desert or surrounding communities.The terms also take into account the resources that are available and the needs of the surrounding communities.
The BLM expects to issue a rough draft of new conditions for Burning Man in December 2018, after which public comments will be encouraged. The agency hopes to consider a final draft of stipulations in February 2019.
If you want to share your comments with the BLM, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with "Burning Man Event Special Recreation Permit EIS" in the subject line or send mail to Mark Hall, Authorized Officer at 5100 E. Winnemucca Blvd., Winnemucca, NV 89445.