Federal Government Relations

2008 marked Burning Man’s successful completion of the third year of a five-year Bureau of Land Management (BLM) permit; however, the success was not without a new set of challenges to overcome.

The first of these was navigating through BLM’s Cost Recovery process. In 2007, the BLM switched from charging Burning Man a per person per day charge to a more complicated method requiring the BLM to document and justify all of its expenditures. While the switch seemed to make sense on one level (the BLM’s regulations technically require Burning Man to pay under this method), the actual practice of documenting costs dragged on well into 2008. Black Rock City, LLC (BRC) cooperated with the BLM through this drawn out process.

The BLM promised that new procedures, hiring an accountant, and switching to a new accounting system would alleviate the troubles in 2008. However, despite these noble efforts to achieve better efficiency, the BLM again this year has not been able to document and justify its costs by the required date. Once the Cost Recovery documents are received by Burning Man, a team of lawyers and accountants will review the file to ensure that all costs are justified. One area of concern is an increase of $60,000 over the previous year for a class of BLM officers that other events on public land are not charged for. BRC has reserved its right to challenge this increase once the expenditure is verified.

Another challenge that Burning Man and the BLM faced in 2008 was the issue of law enforcement behavior. In 2007 there was a significant increase in the number of citations and warnings that the BLM issued to Burning Man participants. The grassroots effort of attorneys in the burner community known as “Lawyers for Burners” got many of these citations either dismissed or plead down to lesser charges, and also was able to show that the BLM had violated due process in some cases. Spring boarding from these bold community efforts, Burning Man initiated a mediated session with the BLM to address the issue of aggressive law enforcement and make positive change for 2008.

In July representatives from the BLM, including the BLM Nevada State Director and the BLM Nevada Special Agent in Charge, met with a delegation from Burning Man comprised of board and senior staff members wearing the hats of government relations, legal, Playa Safety Council, Black Rock Rangers and Law Enforcement Agency Liaison (LEAL). A professional mediator from the United States Institute for Environmental Conflict Resolution facilitated a fruitful discussion of the issues at hand. Both sides agreed to have more meetings throughout the planning year to get all the relevant parties to discuss the issues and cooperate with the goal of producing a safe and legal Burning Man event without violating anyone’s civil rights.

The real test, however, came on the playa. The overall number of citations dropped from the year before, as did the number of warnings. However, the number of arrests increased significantly, and there were still reports of law enforcement behavior that seemed inappropriate. Still, BRC believes that the efforts of Lawyers for Burners, the mediation with the BLM and having the ACLU of Nevada onsite in 2008 helped make a significant difference. Burning Man is already scheduling a follow-up mediation in an effort to continue making inroads into keeping participants’ civil rights intact in Black Rock City. For more information on the law enforcement situation in 2008, see the Ranger Operations AfterBurn Report, and for more information about Lawyers for Burners and the ACLU, see the Legal AfterBurn.

In October 2008, Burning Man once again passed the BLM’s site inspection with flying colors. Both parties plan to cooperate in 2009 to streamline Burning Man’s Operating Plan and the BLM’s permit stipulations. Since the stipulations stem from the Operating Plan, the idea is to structure the two documents similarly, which will require a significant reorganization and revision of Burning Man’s Operating Plan. This will also better delineate which responsibilities belong to BRC and which to the BLM. It will be the next step in the evolution of the unique relationship between the two parties.

State, Local & Native American Relations

Burning Man’s relations are stable with Pershing County, Washoe County, Nevada Highway Patrol (NHP), Nevada Department of Transportation and the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribal Reservation. In 2008, Burning Man partnered with NHP to get tailored messages out to participants in the Jackrabbit Speaks Email Newsletter, Survival Guide, website and BMIR about highway safety. NHP reported at the Fall Cooperator’s Meeting that the efforts paid off with a drop in motorist assists, only eight accidents over the eight days of the event with no fatalities and no injuries on the highways leading to and from Black Rock City. These statistics are even more impressive when considering that there were close to 50,000 people driving on the two-lane highways with no shoulders on the back roads of Nevada leading to Black Rock City!

In October the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) held its annual conference for Native American Tribes in San Francisco. Burning Man took the opportunity to welcome the Chairman of the Pyramid Lake Tribal Reservation and two representatives from the Summit Lake Tribal Reservation to Burning Man Headquarters. This was the first meeting between Burning Man and the Summit Lake Tribe, whose reservation is located in Humboldt County, Nevada north of Black Rock City. Although the Summit Lake Reservation is a considerable distance away from the Burning Man event, the meeting revealed that both BRC and the Summit Lake Tribe share many of the same environmental concerns. BRC is examining ways that both parties can work together in the future on joint environmental efforts.

On-Playa Relations

This year the External Relations Team (XRT) continued to welcome and acculturate visiting guests to Black Rock City. As the largest Special Recreation Permittee in the United States, BRC was pleased to welcome a delegation from the Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C. to Black Rock City in 2008. The officials who enable Burning Man to happen on public lands got a close-up view of Burning Man’s culture, art and participants from the geodesic dome atop the mutant vehicle, “Strangelove” (created by True Prophet). Visitors included James Caswell, Director of BLM; William Woody, Director of BLM Law Enforcement; Ron Wenker, Nevada State BLM Director; and Doran Sanchez, Nevada BLM Director of Communications for BLM.

XRT was lucky to have new members join the team, one of whom came from another Burning Man department, and has the unique skills and knowledge that make a great XRT representative. The Rocket Bus crew again rocked it by providing vehicles, dedication and hard work. This year XRT worked with the Department of Mutant Vehicles (DMV) to add more vehicles to the fleet for giving tours. An ongoing challenge is having access to mutant vehicles with the right number of seats for the day’s visitors, a suitable design for the weather of the moment, and the kind of mechanical reliability that’s difficult to sustain on the dusty playa, all without burdening the owners and operators of the vehicle in the face of “playa time.” Hopefully in 2009 mutant vehicles will evolve into exactly what XRT needs!

Submitted by,
Ray Allen