The sun rises behind a Burning Man art installation on the Black Rock Playa.
The sun rises behind a Burning Man art installation on the Black Rock Playa.
Last week’s Lovelock public hearing on the Bureau of Land Management’s Draft EIS for Burning Man’s ten year Special Recreation Permit attracted plenty of local interest. The comment deadline is April 29 with the Final EIS expected this summer before the event starts August 25.

The Lovelock audience was quiet compared to the reportedly raucous, standing-room only crowd at the Sparks Nugget the night before. Some local leaders,however, later shared strong opinions of the BLM’s Draft EIS, proposed mitigations and five alternative plans for the event.

In a rare agreement with festival organizers, Pershing County Sheriff Jerry Allen told the Lovelock crowd that the BLM’s proposed security searches of all vehicles for illegal drugs and firearms might not provide the required probable cause and therefore could be unconstitutional.

Pershing County Commission Chairman Larry Rackley, who is not a fan of the festival, later said he agreed with Sheriff Allen’s assessment of blanket searches of all vehicles entering the event.

“As far as entry searches, I agree with Jerry that this is going a bit far,” Rackley said in an email.

Rackley also opposes the proposal for trash dumpsters and heavy concrete barriers on the playa due to the impacts on an aging county road. He also opposes Alternative A that would allow the festival to grow from 80,000 to 100,000 participants as proposed by event organizers.

“I do not agree with the concrete barriers because of the weight, in and out, on the road,” Rackley said in the email. “Burning Man of course does not contribute to road maintenance or repair. I do not agree with expansion of the population for the same reason. BRC (Black Rock City) does not pay their way and takes advantage of Pershing County.” 

Rackley also criticized a BRC official who said law enforcement contributes to the trash.

“In the BRC response to this by Marnee Benson, she spoke about the loss of business to others who pick up the burner trash and included the statement that law enforcement contributed to the trash,” he said. “Really? And then they (BRC) wonder why people feel the way they do about them. She often speaks on items or makes statements to make others look bad and Burning Man look like they are better than others.”

Lovelock resident and longtime Burning Man critic David Skelton said he spoke up at the Lovelock hearing. Contrary to an earlier news report, he estimated the crowd at about 90 people. He decided to share his concerns after feedback from a Burning Man participant.

“I spoke due to the efforts of a Burner that I had talked with at the meeting that felt our local issues should be heard,” Skelton said in an email.

Skelton said he supports the BLM’s proposal for dumpsters on the playa and “concrete barriers-terrorist-vehicle-barriers” surrounding the event perimeter. And, he “ABSOLUTELY” supports the agency’s proposal to search all incoming vehicles for illegal drugs and firearms.

As for the BLM’s five alternative plans for the event, Skelton said he supports “E then B.” Plan E would deny the Special Recreation Permit. Plan B would cap the event at 50,000 participants. 

“Burning Man costs Pershing County per the Draft EIS. There is no economic benefit,” he said. “Burning Man has created by their own actions a hostile relationship with Pershing County resulting in the current condition. If Burning Man left, there would be no adverse effect (for Pershing County). Instead, there would be a cost savings benefit.”

Alternative A would allow the event to grow to 100,000 participants by 2022. Alternative C would move the event to the north but it would stay in Pershing County and attendance would climb to 100,00 people. Alternative D would maintain the current population at 80,000 participants.

The BLM document confirms Sheriff Allen’s ongoing assertion that the festival impacts public safety throughout the region. If BLM allows the festival to grow, public safety services could be stretched beyond capacity especially when there’s a major emergency such as a large wildfire.

“First responder resources, including fire, emergency medical services and law enforcement, are drawn down during the event as personnel from across northern Nevada support the event,” states the Draft EIS. “Communities across northern Nevada are left with reduced emergency services staff, particularly in Pershing County.”

In the BLM analysis of Alternative A, the proposed festival population of 100,000 participants “would require an increase in law enforcement to approximately 50 percent of all BLM law enforcement nationwide reducing the BLM’s ability to execute other agency missions.”

“Additionally, this increase would negatively affect public health and safety in Pershing County as a whole due to a drawdown on first responders available to the remainder of the county.”

The BLM outlined environmental concerns with an expanded population including increased debris left on the playa despite intensive annual cleanup efforts by BRC after the festival.

“An event population of 100,000 would likely expose the public and environment to solid waste. Despite being based on Leave No Trace Principles, a time series analysis from 2006 through 2018 (Hall and Rorex 2018) for the City Grid indicates that there is a trend of increasing debris and litter left behind each year of the event.”

The BLM document reveals other public health concerns on the dark side of Burning Man.

“The ‘gifting culture’ of the event results in participants accepting items from other participants, potentially ingesting substances unknown to them,” states the Draft EIS. “Participants who believe they are ingesting one substance, only to find out they have ingested something completely different, could overdose. Foods, such as dried apricots and breath mints laced with illicit substances, have been located at the event. In addition, law enforcement responds to combative or assaultive subject calls due to illegal controlled substance abuse.”

BRC claims the BLM’s proposed mitigations threaten the festival’s future and would force tickets prices to increase by about $286. The “main” ticket price for this year’s event was $425. BRC asked Burners to send comments to BLM “if you fundamentally oppose this draconian response by the BLM to a peaceful, responsible, recreational steward of public lands.”  

“If you feel strongly that concrete or plastic barriers at the fence line would impact your experience at the Burning Man event, that Leave No Trace is an important principle for you and the culture to continue to embody, or that new search and seizure operations by BLM’s private security company would be problematic, leading to increased wait times, traffic and civil rights violations, we strongly encourage you to formally submit a comment to BLM.”