Burning Man Should Evolve to Embrace More Environmental Protection
New federal conditions overreach, but bringing 100,000 Burners to Black Rock Desert has undeniable impacts
By Patrick Donnelly and Steven T. Jones
Burning Man organizers and participants are understandably concerned about proposed federal rules governing the annual event. The Bureau of Land Management’s plan for concrete barriers, dumpsters and drug searches could change the nature of the massive arts festival and its ethos of freedom and self-reliance.
But the time has come for Burners to accept the fact than more than 70,000 people descending on remote public lands in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert have a huge environmental impact, as BLM’s new environmental impact statement makes clear.
The event has always been an evolution, blossoming from a few thousand participants to a proposed 100,000 people in the near future. It makes sense that the next iteration be one that keeps its spirit alive but also minimizes harm to the desert, wildlife and the air we breathe. The Black Rock Desert is a special place, and Burning Man is a unique gathering that deserves a deeper conversation and some hard decisions about how to do it right.
Unfortunately that’s not what happened at the April 8 hearing the BLM hosted at a casino near Reno, where Burners’ tempers flared and frustrations bubbled over. Some even shouted down those calling for more environmental protection, which seems inconsistent with the personal responsibility and creative problem-solving approach that’s been a hallmark of the Burner community.
Maybe Burning Man is already too big and needs to stop growing. That could be hard for some to accept, but it’s a reality Burners may need to face. Here’s why.
What worked for a countercultural event of a few thousand might not work for a medium-sized city (Burning Man becomes Nevada’s third-largest metropolitan area every September) with growing mainstream appeal.
“Leave no trace” is an admirable standard that encourages people to pick up after themselves and produce less waste. But the trash Burners dutifully collect from the playa and refer to as “MOOP” (matter out of place) often ends up littering the landscape, roads and towns of Northern Nevada with piles of bulging, dust-covered garbage bags.
Burners also must acknowledge the terrible air quality the event creates. Gallows humor about “playa lung” abounds as participants cough up dust, but in fact it’s a serious health issue.
Some longtime Burners have developed respiratory ailments from breathing particulate matter that’s more than 10 times the EPA standard. In fact, data show the playa during Burning Man has worse air quality than the most polluted cities on Earth. And the plume extends for many miles beyond the playa, potentially harming nearby communities.
Burners may mistake the playa for nothing but acres of dust. But playas are ecosystems that sustain a variety of species.
Each year when the snowmelt floods onto the Black Rock, tiny communities of macroinvertebrates like fairy shrimp and brine fleas come to life. In a beautiful example of co-evolution, the timing of this hatch coincides with the arrival of migratory birds, who feast on these bugs on their journey north.
A 2010 study found the eggs don’t fare well in areas where Burners camp, and its authors identified intriguing possibilities for how to minimize impacts. That puts Burning Man in an excellent position to study the long-term benefits of efforts to protect these fragile species.
Playas are also complex hydrologic systems, draining and evaporating water based on small changes in topography and the alkali composition of the desert soil. Over time vehicular and foot traffic has changed the hydrology of the Black Rock. That could mean the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will weigh in with a Clean Water Act permit, just as it would with any other project that significantly affected hydrology.
Some of the BLM proposals smack of the kind of unnecessary government overreach that Burners rightfully reject. For instance, forcing Burning Man to hire a security company to search all attendees for illegal drugs is unjustified and unworkable. People already spend hours in idling vehicles waiting to get in. Shaking everyone down for drugs would make that far worse.
If the BLM requires Burning Man to install nine miles of concrete vehicle barriers, it would create a huge linear sand dune that would take Herculean efforts to remove.
Burning Man needs to take more responsibility for the damage it’s done to the environment and accept that it may have already reached the natural limits imposed by the Black Rock Desert Playa and its rural surroundings.
And the BLM needs to ensure that it does not use the environmental review process to impose Draconian measures that have nothing to do with environmental protection.
We look forward to working with both parties to ensure that Burning Man continues to be a thriving part of Nevada’s culture and economy, while protecting the Black Rock Desert we love.
Patrick Donnelly is Nevada state director of the Center for Biological Diversity, a national environment organization. Steven T. Jones is a media specialist at the Center and author of “The Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert is Shaping the New American Counterculture.”
Originally published April 19, 2019, in the Reno Gazette Journal.