Will BLM Requirements Destroy Burning Man? Do They Mean to?

While partying, music and a unique culture draw thousands to Burning Man each year, it is the art such as this brass sculpture and the giant woman in the background that pull me back to the event year after year.

Today, and for my next several posts on my 11 years at Burning Man (2004-5-6-7-9-10-12-13-14-15 and 17) , I am going to be featuring my favorite Burning Man art, starting with sculptures.

First, however, I want to address the conflict between the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Burning Man Organization (BMO), which has been in the news recently. While recognizing the right and responsibility of BLM to protect the lands it manages, much of what it is proposing seems excessive given how BMO already addresses the issues that are being raised.

TRASH: BLM wants BMO to place large dumpsters throughout Black Rock City. Burning Man has always had a policy that Burners carry out whatever trash they generate during the week. And a very strict policy on keeping Black Rock City and the Playa clean. I commented on how trash-free the grounds were on the first post I ever wrote about Burning Man. I had never been to another event involving large numbers of people that could come close to matching it. That has not changed. Furthermore, a large group of volunteers do an inch by inch search of the grounds for trash following the event. Detailed records are kept and camps that leave an excessive amount of trash are put on notice. One camp was disinvited from further participation in Burning Man last year. When I visited Death Valley National Park during the time that President Trump shut down America’s National Park System in January, I found that visitors had left behind much more trash than I have ever seen at Burning Man.

Concern has been raised about Burners leaving their trash behind in surrounding communities. Burning Man presently lists the places that are willing to accept trash. Normally, communities, nonprofits, or private businesses charge five dollars per bag to properly dispose of the trash plus make a profit. Personally, I would see nothing wrong with creating a more formal structure and have BMO subsidize the efforts to the benefit of the local communities and Native American tribes in the area. It would be a much more positive solution than BLM is proposing. A win-win for all.

CEMENT FENCE: I don’t get the BLM proposal to force BMO to build a large cement fence around the event. As I have mentioned several times in my posts over the years, I spend a lot of time out on the edges of Burning Man. I like it out there. I am the only person I have ever seen ‘illegally’ cross the small fence that exists. And Black Rock Rangers were on me in a minute. Unless BLM has evidence that really bad things are happening out there in the remote area beyond what I am unaware of, the idea seems totally unreasonable and much more devastating to the environment than the present minimalist effort.

LIGHTING AT NIGHT: BLM is claiming that Burning Man creates light pollution and disrupts migrating bird patterns. BMO argues that birds are not migrating through the area at the time of the event. It would be interesting to see BLM’s backup data. It seems to me that an independent wildlife biologist could quickly resolve the issue. My own glance through the literature on the subject suggests that the main migration takes place in the spring when the area is flooded. I’ve seen a few birds in my years at Burning Man but nothing that would suggest major migrating patterns, and I would notice. The half dozen bird ID books I keep in my house and the ever present binoculars speak to my interest.

Night at Burning Man is a magical time complete with fire-breathing dragons and beautifully lit sculptures. The major burns, such as the Man, can light up the sky. Except for that, Burning Man is dark. Lanterns provide what light there is and they don’t extend into Black Rock City. I can guarantee that any city of 70,000 in America generates far more light than Burning Man. And Burning Man is only for one week. The issue I am not sure about is laser lights. Unless they are used to enhance art projects, my assumption is that they could be eliminated.

LAW ENFORCEMENT ISSUES: Taxpayers at the local, state, and national level should not be expected to subsidize the Burning Man event. Law enforcement agencies, medical care providers, and any other public entities that provide vital services at Burning Man need to reimbursed for any necessary and reasonable expenses created for them by the event. And BLM should be adequately compensated for the use of public lands. Looking at available figures, this seems to be happening. (It would be interesting to look at what BLM receives from the mining and ranching interests that make extensive use of public lands in comparison to what it receives from Burning Man.)

I have three concerns here. One, what is reasonable and necessary? Crimes such as assault and theft obviously deserve law enforcement attention. But what about broken tail lights or the private use of marijuana? Marijuana is legal in Nevada but not on federal land. But do we really want our law enforcement agencies focused on busting pot users? Alcohol is the drug of choice at Burning Man. Two, while it is important that taxpayers not be responsible for covering costs at Burning Man, neither should Burning Man be responsible for supplementing the budgets of government agencies beyond Burning Man costs.

Third, and reprehensible from my perspective, BLM now wants to set up a separate area where vehicles coming into the event can be searched by police without warrants or reasonable cause for drugs, i.e. marijuana, and weapons. I am sorry, but police state comes to mind. Here’s the Fourth Amendment: The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized. I, for one, will not return to Burning Man if this comes to pass, and it isn’t that I have anything to hide. Burning Man has a policy against both drugs and guns and does its own search when we enter the grounds. That’s bad enough. I find armed people entering my van without cause unacceptable and un-American.

I have tried to be fair here in my assessment. I recognize that BLM has a responsibility in terms safety and the environment. But I also believe that unless BLM can prove that its efforts are reasonable and necessary, they are more in the form of harassment, and may even evolve from a desire to eliminate the event. I hate to be overly paranoid, but if so, the question becomes, why?

I’ll conclude on a more positive note with the beginning of my series on Burning Man art. But, I will also note here, this art, and the opportunity for artists, is what will be lost if Burning Man is eventually forced to close its doors.

I’m not sure what these brass sculptures were suppose to represent, but I found them beautiful in the Black Rock Desert setting.
Fantasy came to mind when I first saw this.
Like much of Burning Man art, people were invited to be a part of the sculpture by climbing on it.
A close up…
And at night. You are looking at the type of light pollution you can expect at Burning Man.
I’ve always found this simple sculpture made of bricks powerful.
All types of media are used in the art at Burning Man. This is a carved wood sculpture of an Easter Island figure.
From the front.
The sphinx backlit by the sun.
The Statue of Liberty, the symbol of American freedom and promise. ““Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”
A ninja warrior.
A clay bust of Maya Angelo symbolizing her book, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”
This wild, metal dragon, guarding its egg has always been one of my favorite Burning Man sculptures. It was created by a group of women artists out of the Bay Area.
The dragon with its egg.
Lit up at night. The drama is increased by just how dark the Burning Man night is.
I’ll conclude today’s post with this. When the egg opened and the baby dragon was born, it shot these flames into the night.

NEXT POST: Much more art.

27 thoughts on “Will BLM Requirements Destroy Burning Man? Do They Mean to?

  1. First of all, the art is gorgeous. Thanks for sharing your photos. Second, I’d just seen an article on the new restrictions and (of course) thought of you and the stories of your Burning Man experiences. Thanks for clarifying what this is all about- I hope it can be resolved in a reasonable way 😦

    • Thanks, Anne. I suspect there will be some kind of resolution. It is certainly in the interest of the locals who see an influx of money come in with the influx of the people. Losing the event would be sad, especially for the art community. –Curt

  2. When we were young [hard as it is to remember now] the advice given to those planning a noisy party was to invite the neighbors too. Perhaps BMO needs to invite BLM bureaucrats to attend. 🙂

    • Laughing, always a good idea, Ray. Actually, I think there are at least 50 hanging out at the event. Most of them are good folks. In fact, as I understand it, attending is something of a plum assignment. I think that the pressures are coming from higher up the chain. –Curt

  3. Thank you Curt as Alice and I knew you know what happens at Burning Man and were wondering about the validity of the BLM article we read. The comments that followed the article weren’t as positive as yours and some sounded like jealousy by those who don’t get in. The very best to you and we do miss seeing you and your family.

    • Thanks, Bill. It’s a tough one deciding how best to handle the massive influx of people for a week. The success of the event depends upon a balance of freedom and order. Given the number of people, the alcohol consumed, and the environment, surprisingly few things go wrong. What would be sad, from my perspective, would be to lose the incredible amount of creativity the event inspires. We miss seeing you and Alice, as well. Our RV trips have been limited ever since we got tied to five acres of country/wilderness life. I just spent ten minutes trying to discourage a herd of 9 deer from eating Peggy’s rose bush. 🙂 Lots of luck with that one! –Curt

  4. It would be a travesty if Burning Man is forced to close. The local people would miss it, even if they don’t think so now. The rest of us voyeurs would be deeply disappointed too.

    • Smiling here, AC. The locals actually benefit considerably from the amount of money that 70,000 people bring into the area. Yes, they would miss it. I certainly would miss the art. –Curt

  5. I’ve been following the Burning Man saga, particularly through some of the tech blogs I dip into from time to time. There’s an obvious tendency throughout the government to become more intrusive and authoritarian. If all the articles like this were collected and collated, it would be immediately obvious that this isn’t just a case of trying to corral some over-enthusiastic kids in the desert.

    Unfortunately, rational and useful approaches to areas of conflict aren’t common in today’s environment. I hope things can be sorted out, and some accomodations reached. As much as Burning Man doesn’t appeal to me, I certainly wouldn’t want it to be completely transformed, or even ended.

    • There is ample reason to be concerned about where our government is headed, Linda, but we have lived through trying times before. Hopefully, we will return to a more balanced future where compromise and thoughtfulness with the good of the whole in mind is the rule as opposed to a rare exception.
      My main concern about the loss of Burning Man will be the loss to the creativity and art it inspires. See my present post for a Smithsonian perspective. (The average age of the enthusiastic kids by the way is mid-30s. Youngsters to us maybe. :)) –Curt

    • Yours is an important perspective that seems rare: I’m not interested in participating, but if it makes you happy and doesn’t harm anyone, go ahead. I wonder if people forget that is one stance that remains an option.

  6. Inside government, there are two conflicting schools of thought. One is that the mission of an agency is to serve the public, the other is that the mission of an agency is to comply with statutes, policy and rules.

    Working for an agency, you can’t get into trouble for failing to serve, only failing to comply.

    The problem is that most agencies try to reconcile this conflict by creating more policies and rules and more strictly enforcing them.

    Around here, the trend toward returning marginal farmland to prairie and wetlands is being constrained by the difficulty of dealing with state and federal regulators. People simply do not want to deal with them.

    • I spent part of my life working with legislative bodies on health and environmental laws as a professional legislative advocate. I quickly learned that passing a bill was only part of the process. Working with the various interested parties, including the agencies that would be responsible for implementation before, during and after the bill passed was even more important. Another thing I learned was that the more time effort and money the opposition put into trying to defeat the effort, the more it would likely achieve a significant impact. Often having the tobacco industry as the opponent was a true lesson in no-holds-barred, power politics. –Curt

  7. This was gorgeous… the art part. As for BLM, it does sound like quite a bit of overreach. The sort of stuff that gives government a bad name.

    • For the most part, BLM does a good job and has a decent relationship with Burning Man, Gunta, but the cement fence and police doing vehicle checks pushed me over the edge a bit. I’d be wary of the latter during the best of times. –Curt

      • Thought I’d mention that I believe we were in your neighborhood just recently. We were headed to the Spring Garden Expo at the Jackson County Fairgrounds. We enjoyed taking a slightly less traveled route through Applegate and Jacksonville. It’s some really beautiful country out your way. We enjoyed it more than a previous trip staying on 199.

  8. As for the BLM, or more to the point, the current set of higher-ups, it seems obvious what the motive is. Burning man makes them uncomfortable; it’s too free-spirited, too unconventional, too far outside their comfort zone. And God forbid anyone lives by a different standard than what they’d dictate. I can kind of relate, I think I’d be a little uncomfortable there too, but what ever happened to tolerance?

    The art is excellent. Seems like a lot of it should end up in art museums. Do you know if they do?

  9. Curt I think you did a great job with being fair in your representation of the situation. You are a champion of the organization, and mention things all the time that the bureaucrats seem not to be aware of: the inspections, the lack of litter, the strict policing of adherence to the rules, the inability to leave the area (well, for very long). Organization is very strict, and I’m sure that’s why they are able to manage this temporary city. The feds should actually consider taking lessons FROM BMO rather than try to tell them how to do what they’re already doing better than some parts of the US Govt.

    • I read a novel recently that included a terrorist attack on Burning Man, Crystal. Afterwards, I wondered if that might be one of the reasons for the government wanting to apply stricter controls…

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