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Federal Clampdown On Burning Man Imperils Festival's Free Spirit Ethos, Say Burners

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Art Car at Burning Man 2017
Laura Beltrán Villamizar/NPR

Art Car at Burning Man 2017

Burning Man started three decades ago as a low-key gathering of friends who celebrated summer solstice on a West Coast beach by setting a wooden man aflame.

Now, event organizers say the counterculture gathering of arts, music and communal living is eyeing attendance in the six figures, leading to a months-long struggle with federal regulators over whether its swelling size will cause long-term harm to the environment and even make the event vulnerable to a terrorist attack.

The battle is heating up as Burning Man officials attempt to secure a new 10-year permit to allow the August gathering in Nevada's Black Rock Desert to jump from its current capacity of 80,000 to 100,000. But the Bureau of Land Management is clamping down.

In a recent report assessing Burning Man's environmental impact, the BLM capped the festival population at 80,000, citing an abundance of trash generated by the thousands of revelers and a host of safety concerns for eventgoers as well as for the federally protected land.

A preliminary report from the BLM called for new regulations, including an attendance cap, mandatory security screenings and a concrete barrier to encircle the perimeter. Federal officials have since eased those controls for now, except for the population cap.

Support comes from

Still, longtime participants say the government tightening its grip on the growing event threatens the anarchic principles that underpin the festival.

Officials from Burning Man said those initial proposals amounted to an "existential threat."

"We want to live in a world with sharp edges," longtime burner Matt Scott said. "Where not everything has been perfectly babyproofed for our protection."

Push to 100,000 meets resistance

The festival is based near Gerlach, Nev., a dusty desert town of some 200 residents. For years, federal land regulators and Burning Man organizers have been at odds over controlling attendance numbers at the event. The population typically grows 800% the week of Burning Man, sending tens of thousands of people sprawled throughout a dried-up lake bed known as "the playa."

Once considered an underground gathering for bohemians and free spirits of all stripes, Burning Man has since evolved into a destination for social media influencers, celebrities and the Silicon Valley elite.

An increase of 20,000 participants over the next 10 years would be unmanageable, Rudy Evenson, a spokesman for the BLM, said. Federal and local authorities are already strained handling other events taking place over the Labor Day weekend.

One-third of all BLM law enforcement officers nationwide patrol Burning Man, and federal officials say if the event jumped to 100,000, half of the country's BLM officers would have to be deployed to the event.

It's the latest battle in a years-long tug of war between the BLM and the Burning Man organization over population growth. The BLM has warned Burning Man for exceeding the population maximum three separate times, most recently last year.

The agency is ready to approve raising the population cap, but only if a number of additional concerns over the environment and general safety are addressed.

The suggested remedies to those issues, burners worry, will cut against the event's environmental stewardship ethos and an all-are-welcome philosophy captured by a phrase favorited by attendees: "radical inclusion."

But for now, the organization says no major changes are in store for 2019 and it is "satisfied to remain steady."

Needed or excessive security?

The BLM has suggested that with an event as massive as Burning Man, organizers need to be considering a kind of nightmare scenario that has become a common aspect of modern large-scale event planning: What if a terrorist attack happened?

As such, the federal government's draft plan called for a 10-mile concrete barrier to be installed around the temporary city — one that would replace an existing trash-catching fence — but that proposal was removed in the final assessment following pushback.

"Do we need the expense of this, and is it really going to protect us from anything?" asked Scott. There are far more vulnerable sites outside the city's entrance, he said.

"If somebody was going to try a mass casualty event, why target the city when the backup to either get into the city or get out of the city would be a much easier soft target?"

Some security experts see it differently.

"Certainly if the environment is vulnerable to vehicle-ramming attacks, having jersey barriers is a relevant request," said Michael Rozin, a former Israeli soldier who specializes in counterterrorism security as founding president of security consulting firm Rozin Security.

The BLM didn't comment on the kind of risk assessment it has conducted, if any, to gauge the likelihood of an attack. The agency said only that it has no new plans to alter the security policy at this time.

In public comments published by the BLM in response to the draft report, an anonymous commenter wrote that the barrier measure doesn't apply to an event populated by art cars, the creatively modified vehicles used to roam the vast playa. "The interior of the event contains over 30,000 vehicles," the commenter told the BLM. "Any one of these vehicles could be used in an attack."

The BLM had also proposed hiring a private security firm to search vehicles for drugs and weapons at the festival's entrance.

"This is one requirement we are prepared to push back on," the organization said.

If ever mandated, the screenings would subject "a peaceable gathering of people to searches without probable cause," Burning Man officials argue.

It is wasted time and resources spent on a largely nonviolent population, said Jennifer Martin-Romme, a three-time burner. "I've never seen anything that could have turned into a bar brawl."

Some burners said adding the security screening would exacerbate the already lengthy traffic congestion leading up the event.

Martin-Romme said it is normal to spend up to 12 hours waiting to reach the front gate. Add vehicle searches to that, she said, and "it will take an hour to go through my stuff alone."

"Radical inclusion" collides with "leave no trace"

Burners are supposed to bring everything needed to build the community and survive in the extreme desert conditions and are expected to pack it out without a trace left behind — human waste and all. Like a mirage flashing in the desert, Black Rock City vanishes.

When it comes to cleaning up after the event, BLM spokesperson Evenson said, "generally speaking, they're excellent at meeting [the BLM's] standard."

But organizers concede that's not the reality and that local residents have valid complaints about the trash left alongside roads after the event's exodus.

Some burners chalk it up to the festivals' bad actors. Windblown remnants and illegal dumpings still find their way to Gerlach and roadsides and the Paiute Tribe's two reservations outside Reno.

The traffic increase brings trash, trespassing, vandalism, poaching and the spread of invasive plants to the tribe's reservations, says Rachael Youmans, who heads the Summit Lake Paiute Tribe's Natural Resources Department.

The tribe's original territory, where the Paiute people settled, includes Black Rock Desert, where Burning Man is held. "Everything about the event impacts the tribe," Youmans said.

But because the reservation is located about 100 miles from the event, she said, "tribal concerns regarding the severe environmental impact of the Burning Man event have not weighed heavily in the consideration of whether to allow the event in the first place, or to increase attendance levels."

At public hearings the BLM held in April, Nevadans also complained about the trash and traffic that infiltrate their communities long after the festival ends.

"The trash on the roads is just amazing," a problem that has increased over the years, said John Bogard, who has owned a pottery shop 8 miles from Gerlach for 45 years. Bogard has been hoping the BLM would reduce the population that clogs the main roads he takes to get groceries and other necessities.

But many Nevadans, including Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve, say the annual economic boon — about $63 million for the state, according to the BLM — and artwork that the pilgrimage brings the Reno-Sparks region outweighs the downfalls for many in the community.

Some Gerlach-area residents disagree. By the time burners reach the town, they have already stocked up on supplies in Reno or elsewhere. Plus, Bogard says, potential customers aren't willing to wade through the high traffic during burn week to buy his art.

The BLM assured Burning Man that it won't introduce dumpsters on the playa this year — a proposal included in a draft version of the BLM report that caused a stir among a community that prides itself on environmental stewardship — if attendees can keep their trash under control.

Dumpsters would introduce more problems, according to Dominic Tinio, who leads a team of staff and volunteers known as the Restoration Crew, or "Resto" crew, that spends three weeks after the Black Rock exodus clearing out debris. "Dumpsters are a messy business, producing debris and spills, and not something that belongs on protected public land," he said.

Tinio said a campaign to ratchet up messaging to prevent road debris is in the works for this year.

Asked about debris left after the event, Burning Man spokesperson Dominique Debucquoy-Dodley said organizers run a "Leave No Trace" campaign each year to educate participants on best environmental practices, starting with the "essential reading" survival guide. In addition to Resto's thorough post-event line sweep, volunteer teams like the "Earth Guardians" and "Black Rock Rangers" teach the community how to reduce its waste. The organization also encourages use of carpooling and its "Burner Express" bus program to reduce its carbon footprint.

In face of change, will burners "bow down" or "push back?"

The clock ticks on a 30-day public review window of the BLM's nearly 900-page final impact statement until the bureau finalizes its decision to approve Black Rock City's permit that would allow it to hold a legal gathering, and under what conditions. Regardless of the outcome, first-time and veteran burners will unite under the glow of the Burning Man on the event's final night.

Joe Bamberg is gearing up for his 19th trip to the event. He is the last original participant in his theme camp, Shady Waffle, which serves up breakfast each year under a lofty geodesic dome structure. He worries that "intrusive" measures in the future will deter people who make Burning Man a free-wheeling community from coming.

Still, come August, the 68-year-old will again be donning his costume to become "Madame Josephine," a girl scout who gifts others with homemade graphic buttons that chart an evolution of Burning Mans past.

There's one labeled "Burning Baby," a salute to the first humble Burning Man on San Francisco's Baker Beach; "Burning Boy" references the event's 1990-to-1996 era of wild pyrotechnics and a drive-by shooting range. "Burning Adolescence," the last token of his series, remembers the event through 2007, featuring a frequent sighting that Bamberg says he hasn't seen in recent years: a bicyclist engulfed in flames.

This year, he's thinking about fashioning a new button for first-time attendees, inspired by the idea of metamorphosis, the event's 2019 theme — a fitting theme that can double, perhaps, as a nod to the struggle with the BLM that many burners fear may permanently reshape the gathering.

Bamberg said some Burners have the view that "Oh, Burning Man isn't good any more," he said, which he doesn't completely believe, but he is worried about the BLM's new demands, seeing them as "much less reasonable than in the past."

How much resistance burners will mount — and whether strong opposition will even make a difference — are on Bamberg's mind this year.

"There's a point at which they're going too far," he said. "But I don't know to what extent we have to bow down or can push back on it."

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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