Anthropologists were stunned in the early 20th century when they encountered societies in faraway places lacking anything resembling the western notions of government. They even coined a word to describe this phenomenon – acephalous, which literally means, “without a head.”
Similarly, at first glance the fourth largest city in Nevada seems acephalous to some observers with its absence of elected officials and courts of law. Anthropologists learned over time that all societies have some form of government – sometimes it is just not readily apparent. Likewise, Black Rock City is heavily affected by federal, state, and local government. The effect is just not as obvious as in other cities. Numerous Burning Man staff work year-round with numerous government agencies to ensure that Burning Man complies with legal requirements. The result is the illusion that Black Rock City has less government than other municipalities.
Bureau of Land Managament
The 15-year partnership between Burning Man and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) benefits both parties. Burning Man gains use of 5 square miles of the Black Rock-High Rock National Conservation Area (NCA) each year, and the BLM annually collects about three-quarters of a million dollars in permit fees. Due to budget cuts from Washington, the BLM Winnemucca Field Office supplements its budget with fees from Burning Man to fulfill its duty of fostering the NCA. However, in recent years, BLM law enforcement has taken a larger portion of the revenue from the NCA.
As the largest Special Recreation Permit (SRP) in the United States, and the largest Leave No Trace event in the world, Burning Man is extremely concerned about the future of the NCA. Accordingly, the Project maintains a seat on the board of the not-for-profit Friends of the Black Rock and participates actively in the BLM’s Resource Advisory Committee (RAC). Both organizations advise the BLM on ways to foster the management of the NCA.
Ongoing concern about sufficient funding for the NCA’s conservation programs led Black Rock City, LLC to commissioned a study in 2005 about the effect of the rising cost of law enforcement at Burning Man on the NCA. The results indicate that those costs were increasing disproportionately to Black Rock City’s slight population growth. The study was shared with the BLM as well as key members of Congress. The issue is still outstanding and will be pursued during 2006.
Another way for the BLM to save money for the NCA is to minimize costs associated with processing Burning Man’s permit application. For 2006, the BLM requested that Burning Man apply for a 5-year permit so that only one environmental assessment and public comment period would be needed for that time. Accordingly, Burning Man is in the process of drafting a 5-Year Operating Plan, and applying for a 5-year event permit. If issued, the permit will be a milestone because other than our 2-year permit (which just ended), Burning Man historically would have to reapply each year.
Several times a year, the BLM hosts a Cooperator’s Meeting where key Burning Man staff and all agencies involved in running the event meet to plan for a smooth operation. Aptly named, the meetings become smoother each year, as we learn to cooperate more effectively with each other. In 2005 the meetings were more productive than ever.
For the second year in a row, Burning Man participated in the Nevada Day Parade in the state capital, Carson City. Danger Ranger and some Reno area participants turned out in their finest playa wear to showcase the Black Rock Bookmobile and the Cat Car. Their parade entry took home the Judges’ Favorite award and also First Place for the Novelty Entry category. The event has also earned a place in the State Assembly. A photograph from Burning Man now hangs in the lobby of the Assembly building.
The border between Black Rock City and Gerlach has become quite blurry in recent years (and not just from playa dust). First, Burning Man maintains an office in downtown Gerlach that’s open year-round, becoming the base of all Project operations in the summer months. Second, ever since Washoe County zoning laws prevented our staff from camping at Black Rock Station, volunteers of the Department of Public Works (DPW) have stayed in the Gerlach’s local trailer park during the surveying and construction phase of Black Rock City.
As an official resident of Gerlach, Burning Man is heavily involved in local politics. Staff members attend meetings of the Gerlach-Empire Committee Advisory Board (GCAB) and the Gerlach General Improvement District (GGID). GCAB advises the Washoe County Commission about local issues, while GGID governs water and trash issues of the township. This involvement may seem like small town politics, but it addresses a current issue of great import that divides the residents of Gerlach. SEMPRA proposes to build a coal-burning power plant just north of Gerlach. About half of the Gerlach residents want it, and the other half do not. Currently Burning Man is taking a neutral stance.
Black Rock City’s neighbor 50 miles to the southeast is Lovelock, the seat of Pershing County. It’s been difficult to make day-to-day neighborly connections with Lovelock residents because only rocky and impassable Jungo Road connects that town directly to Black Rock City. Negotiations concerning the county’s jurisdiction to regulate events on federal land have been at times as rocky and impassable as the road. However, the long way down Highway 447 and up Interstate 80 is a smooth and comfortable drive. Likewise, after an impasse prevented agreement with the 2004 County Commission, a longer-term strategy led to a smooth renegotiation with the 2005 Commission and an historic agreement.
Proceeds from ice sales at Burning Man have always been donated to local charities in Gerlach, Empire, and Reno. As Burning Man has grown globally, its concept of “local” has expanded to include Lovelock charities, as well as some Bay Area groups. In exchange for financial help for arts and service organizations in Pershing County, the County Commission has agreed to cease trying to regulate events on federal land. The result is beneficial for Burning Man, Pershing County and its local charities
Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe
Burning Man’s neighbors to the south, the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, are technically not a government agency. But then again, neither is the Project. The end result of the nongovernmental relations is the same – diplomats meet with diplomats to manage the flow of event participants who traverse the Pyramid Lake Paiute Reservation on their way to and from Black Rock City. Each year, we work closely with the Pyramid Lake Tribal Council to minimize trash and car accidents along Highway 447. The newly elected chief is looking into the viability of setting up an RV pumping station and a donation station for bicycles and other unwanted items from participants leaving Black Rock City.
External Relations Team: On-Playa Relations
Every year, the Burning Man Project invites local, state, and federal government officials to visit Black Rock City and see what we do for the community. Some visitors are seasoned veterans of the event, others need an escort from the Gate to avoid being overwhelmed. Either way, we accommodate and acculurate them with a tour of the city’s art and infrastructure. This treatment includes an orientation with the External Relations Team (XRT), which includes key members of the board and senior staff. About 50 people visited throughout the week of the 2005 event. All seemed to enjoy their experiences. One highlight was meeting Frankie Sue Del Pappa, the former Attorney General of Nevada, representing Governor Kenny Guinn.
Hurricane Katrina Relief Efforts
When a group of dedicated participants organized a grass-roots effort to help the victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, key members of XRT stepped up to oversee the process. The efforts raised approximately $35,000 on playa. The funds were used to rebuild a Buddhist temple in Biloxi that had been destroyed by the hurricane, to send a circus troop to entertain refugees in Texas and to allow Burning Man staff to travel to Biloxi and help with the rebuilding. Before FEMA begun its efforts, burners were already on the scene.
Black Rock City is a municipality in all respects – it has a post office, Department of Public Works, fire stations, medical services, police, and everything else, except a traditional government structure. Imagine a political anthropologist coming to study government at Burning Man. On Day 1, the anthropologist says, “Wow, a city without government.” After careful scrutiny, the last day’s report reads, “Oh there’s government here alright, they just do it differently than in other cities. And, they do it quite well.”
One of the hallmarks of western governments is civic duty – where ordinary citizens get involved to make society better. In Black Rock City we call it participation – and it’s out of control.
Ray Allen & Tom Price