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Burning Man Journal
All The News That's Fit To Burn: 1998 Summer Newsletter

The Struggle for the Desert
by Darryl Van Rhey

On June 16, 1998 the Bureau of Land Management formally approved an Environmental Assessment study prepared by Burning Man, thus opening the way for our return to our home of eight years in the Black Rock Desert. However, even as we prepare to re-create Black Rock City in 1998, a political struggle is about to begin over the future of the desert. The BLM is currently readying a new long-range management plan for this region. This document is merely a proposal and still subject to public discussion. However, when it is finally adopted, it will become the policy that governs all future public use — your use — of this unique environment. This new plan is the result of several public meetings conducted last summer. At that time, unfortunately, the organizers of Burning Man were preoccupied by another political battle aimed at securing our site for 1997. As a result, few Burning Man participants attended these hearings. The single largest recreational group that uses the desert went unrepresented! However, it is not too late for us to make a difference. Later this year, at the end of July, this plan will be completed and a new series of public hearings will be scheduled over a 90-day period to evaluate its proposed policies. This will be our final and only chance to democratically affect the outcome.

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It is ironic that there should be any potential for conflict at all. The mission of the BLM is to protect environmental resources while fostering the varied use of public land. Historically, these uses have included mining, livestock grazing, hunting and off-road vehicle recreation. The agency's mandate has always been to provide the public with a freer and less structured access to nature than is possible within our national park lands or wildlife preserves. Indeed, in recent years, the BLM has actively promoted newer and less conventional forms of recreation. It would seem that Burning Man, with its combined record of rigorous environmental responsibility and truly innovative use of public land for artistic expression, should be the poster child for any future policy that regulates this region. Why, then, do we face a political struggle?

The answer to this question recalls the famous dictum of Thomas "Tip" O'Neill: all politics are local — and, in this case, they are very local. Certain small user groups have lobbied heavily throughout the hearing process to restrict recreation in the Black Rock Desert. These same groups opposed our application for a use permit earlier this year. They seek to place a cap on "visitor days" in the desert. An annual quota would be established and after it is filled, the desert would apparently be "closed" to further recreation. More alarmingly, every proposed quota that we are currently aware of would bar Burning Man from ever again occurring in the Black Rock Desert. This proposal represents a radical change from current policy. The Gerlach-Sonoma plan, adopted in 1982, requires that parties of more than 49 people obtain a recreational permit before occupying the desert and imposes no overall limit on land use. The new proposed plan would criminalize usage, regardless of intent or behavior, once an arbitrary limit is exceeded. To justify this drastic prohibition, proponents cite a concept known as "cumulative impact" — in this case, the general assumption that with increased usage fragile features of the environment will inevitably be damaged. The notion has a certain specious plausibility. More numbers equal more usage; more usage means an increased potential for harm. When carefully examined, however, this simple equation breaks down.

Central to this dispute is everyone's necessary and shared concern for the environment. All parties, especially Burning Man, believe that there are certain environmental features, natural and historic resources unique to the Black Rock region, that are vulnerable to damage and require increased protection. These include Black Rock's fragile parna dunes, hot spring sites adjacent to the playa and the historic route of the Applegate Lassen Oregon Trail. Because of careful planning, however, Burning Man poses no threat to these resources. To understand why, we must make a distinction. The dry lake bed which forms the playa of the Black Rock Desert, the site of our festival, is inherently a zone of low environmental sensitivity. Its nearly sterile sediments extend to depths greater than the height of surrounding mountains. The area we will occupy supports no life forms and its surface is renewed and smoothed by yearly flooding. This is not to say that the integrity of the playa surface cannot be affected, but all available evidence indicates that recreational use within this zone which avoids litter or any deep and permanent disturbance of surface sediment has no long-term consequence.

All areas of high environmental sensitivity are located adjacent to the playa far north of our encampment. Burning Man participants have not disturbed these sites in former years, but even more pertinently, our use of public land in 1998 is predicated on a plan designed to contain all activity within a carefully circumscribed area at the extreme southern end of the desert. Incoming traffic will be carefully funneled into our site and, once arrived, no cars will be allowed to prowl the open desert. The public space of Black Rock City is designed for bicycles and pedestrians only and cars must be tethered to campsites. Anyone who wishes to drive out and in again must pay an additional fee. In effect, our plan will cancel out the car — the only means of gaining access to the greater desert. Many of these strategies were pioneered at our event in 1997, and the result was immediately obvious to everyone. An instant city of 10,000 people produced no effect on the surrounding environment.

Environmental degradation in the Black Rock Desert has very little to do with "visitor days." Duration of stay cannot damage the desert. Numbers cannot grow little feet and trample the land. This mode of thinking substitutes statistical categories for rational analysis. Instead, we should look for observable causes. What type of usage harms the desert? Under what conditions is it likely to occur? When we examine the actual history of environmental damage in this region, an instructive story emerges. Fortunately, most of these instances are relatively minor. Refuse has been left at certain sites, one hot spring has been intermittently dammed and most of this, not unsurprisingly, is attributable to local usage. The single most serious environmental change has been the erosion of Black Rock's parna dunes and other areas immediately peripheral to the playa. BLM officials are perfectly aware that this is caused by a small number of motorcyclists and other off-road vehicle users. This is a problem completely unrelated to the large-scale of Burning Man or the behavior of its participants. Indeed, these acts of land abuse are perpetrated by individuals who belong to the smallest and least organized group of land users in the desert. Clearly, it is these specific acts perpetrated by uninformed individuals that should concern us most.

The underlying situation that contributes to this problem is the current inability of the BLM to adequately monitor land use or effectively communicate with those who damage the environment. A handful of BLM personnel are responsible for patrolling 1.8 million acres in the Winnemucca District. Monitoring use within so wide a span of space is extremely difficult. Random acts committed by individuals tend to elude this net of control. On the other hand, larger and better organized events can be made thoroughly accountable. Earlier this year Burning Man submitted an Environmental Assessment report to the BLM detailing everything we will do to protect the environment. We will use fencing, signage, trash catchment arrays, security patrols, radio communication, and a carefully devised system of roads and barriers to contain our event and prevent access to environmentally sensitive areas. We plan also to monitor these areas for the duration of our event. We will use our rangers, our public newspaper and radio station, this newsletter and your Survival Guide to inform participants concerning these issues. We will, in fact, do all of these things in order to address the fundamental cause of environmental damage in the desert. Numbers of participants or "visitor days" are essentially irrelevant to the question. Damage occurs to the Black Rock Desert when people are uninformed and no one is watching.

In recognition of this, the BLM has begun to train a greater number of citizen volunteers to monitor land use, conduct surveys, install much needed signage and repair environmental damage. It is particularly interesting to note that at its most recent training session 15 volunteers out of a field of 21 were recruited from Burning Man's participant base. This, of course, is not surprising. Ours is an activist organization that depends primarily on volunteers to organize its community and many of these participants are seasoned campers with a long experience of this region. Our Black Rock Rangers, in particular, possess many valuable skills. They are trained in CPR, radio communication, "Tread Lightly" camping techniques, and non-violent intervention, and are accustomed to coordinating their activities with local law enforcement. We believe that such a citizen auxiliary, properly trained and directed by the BLM, could represent the beginning of a solution to the problem of land use in the Black Rock Desert.

Burning Man has taught us that most people are well intentioned and have no desire to harm the environment or their neighbors. Actions that do harm or damage are almost invariably the result of ignorance. Accordingly, we've trained our rangers to intervene benignly in situations with the intent of educating participants concerning both our rules and the effect of the their actions upon others — and we believe these same principles can be applied to land use concern in the desert. What is needed is a plan to modify behavior.

The alternative to this is an attempt to place a kind of bureaucratic bell jar over the Black Rock Desert. Actual plans to cap numbers, however, must confront the problem of enforcement, and this is already a impossibility. Any serious attempt to "close down" so accessible a desert would require the creation of an enormous apparatus for the repression of use. Realistically, the only actual result of such a plan would be to ban Burning Man. Yet, we are the one organization most capable of educating the public and monitoring usage. We have been successful stewards of the environment and we have come to know and love it as our home.

It has been argued that eliminating Burning Man will sweep back a tide of tourism now threatening to engulf this region, but our event is only a single wave in a much larger movement of people. Increasing population pressure will inevitably propel many more such waves on to the shores of the desert. The Great Basin has been discovered. No dam or bulwark of law, certainly not the tattered broom of enforcement, can control this flow. Now, while there is still time, we seek to join the Bureau of Land Management and all other users of the desert in creating a plan that employs the resources of a community.