Several members of the Board and Senior Staff from various departments (including Communications, Rangers and Emergency Services) interact year-round with numerous government agencies that help make Burning Man possible. On-playa they are collectively known as the External Relations Team (XRT). Each year XRT members secure necessary event permits from federal, state and local government agencies. On-playa, the XRT conducts Black Rock City infrastructure tours for government officials who help make the event happen. The goals of the XRT are to ensure the survival of the event by addressing political and legal concerns of government agencies, and maintaining long-term positive relationships with our neighbors in Nevada.
In 2006 the Government Relations team faced unique successes and challenges with federal, state, local, and special interest groups such as the federal Department of Interior, Bureau of Land Management; Nevada’s Commission on Tourism, Department of Transportation, and Governor’s Office; Pershing County law enforcement and commissioners; and the Pyramid Lake Paiute Reservation.
As organizers of the world’s largest Leave No Trace event that receives the nation’s largest public lands Special Recreation Permit, Burning Man is very proud of its excellent record. Accordingly, for the past several years we have invited the federal government’s Department of Interior (DOI) and BLM to visit the Burning Man event so they can see what we do and how we do it. In 2006 DOI accepted our invitation and sent a delegation of DOI and BLM officials from Washington, D.C., to Black Rock City.
As part of a whirlwind tour of public lands in the West, the delegation arrived at Black Rock City on the Thursday of the event and attended one of Burning Man’s daily “4:15 Meetings” attended by the local agencies that make the event possible. Following the meeting, the delegation visited Board members and the XRT at First Camp The delegation’s last stop before their flight was a tour of Black Rock City on the “Mobile Living Room” mutant vehicle. Delegates and participants alike were grateful to meet the people who make Burning Man happen.
The delegation included Douglas Domenech, Deputy Chief and White House Correspondent for the Department of the Interior; Jim Hughes, Deputy Director of the Bureau of Land Management; William Woody, Director of Law Enforcement for BLM; Dan Dubrey, Assistant Director of Communications for BLM; Ron Wenker, Nevada State Director for BLM; and Doran Sanchez, Nevada Director of Communications for BLM, as well as other Nevada BLM officials. The delegation sincerely enjoyed their visit and said they would like to visit again.
The major federal government relations issue in 2006 stemmed from the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Special Recreation Permit (SRP) stipulations.
As 2005 was the second year of a two-year permit with the BLM, and because the BLM’s permit application process requires a costly and time-consuming Environmental Assessment (EA), in 2006 Burning Man applied for a five-year SRP at the request of BLM’s Winnemucca Field Office. This meant that the BLM processes one application and conducts one EA for the next five years instead of five separate applications and assessments. The mutually beneficial result is the availability of more resources for the stewardship of the Black Rock Desert-High Rock Canyon Emigrant Trails National Conservation Area (NCA). Burning Man cooperated with BLM in the application process, submitted a Five-Year Operations Plan, and the BLM conducted the EA. For the first time in Burning Man’s twenty-year history, BLM issued a five-year SRP (for more information, see BLM ISSUES 5-YEAR PERMIT TO BURNING MAN). All processes went quite smoothly, with the exception of stipulations negotiations.
Each time a Special Recreation Permit application is submitted, its stipulations are negotiated by Burning Man and the BLM. Stipulations are the detailed terms of the SRP that outline the requirements that Burning Man must fulfill in order to produce the event, such as emergency medical services, dates that we can begin operations on playa, exact location of the event site, roads, minimum requirements for dust abatement, and other event details. In 2006 these negotiations were made difficult by several new, troubling, and seemingly arbitrary stipulations. For instance, the new BLM stipulations included having law enforcement exercise its right to evict participants for just cause, charging Burning Man fees for the presence of our staff who work the event, charging Burning Man for local law enforcement costs, and instituting a population capacity at 40,000 participants.
40,000 participants has been the magic number in negotiations with the BLM for several years now. BLM Law Enforcement has stated that if our population goes over 40,000, the number of officers would need to increase. BLM Law Enforcement also stated that lodging arrangements for officers in Gerlach are at their capacity, so there should be a population cap at 40,000 participants. We pointed out to the BLM that there are other housing options in Gerlach, and that we believed there was no need to increase the number of law enforcement officers at this time.
2006 brought interesting new information to the population cap debate: both arrests and citations decreased, even though our peak population increased by almost 10% from 35,567 in 2005 to 38,989 in 2006. Law Enforcement was impressed with the decrease in crime and cited possible factors such as a more mature participant base and increased educational efforts on behalf of Burning Man (for more information see the Law Enforcement report). In light of the decrease in crime and other housing options in Gerlach, Burning Man will fight any proposed population cap in 2007.
After long hours over the negotiation table, Burning Man launched a letter-writing campaign that yielded over 4,000 letters from participants to the BLM during the BLM’s public comment period. The campaign and the Burning Man Legal team negotiations led to workable compromises on three of the four stipulations at issue; however, The BLM was inflexible about its decision to make Burning Man pay for local law enforcement on top of fees already paid by Burning Man and we were stuck with the bill for local law enforcement—even though the BLM has always paid for costs of inviting local law enforcement to enforce state and local laws at the event from existing Burning Man revenue fees. Consequently, Burning Man exercised the right to appeal the stipulation and retained a law firm with expertise in public land use disputes. For more information about the appeal, see the Legal report.
A by-product of BLM’s decision to make Burning Man pay for local law enforcement in 2006 meant working directly with Pershing County to negotiate a law enforcement contract. Not only were we able to keep the costs down to the same amount that BLM paid in 2005, we forged an even better working relationship with the Commissioners and local governments.
In Nevada relations, The Government Relations team is happy to report a break-through with the Nevada Department of Transportation (NDOT) in 2006. At the 2005 Post-Event Co-operator’s Meeting, NDOT blamed the Burning Man Project for excess trash that was dumped at an I-80 rest area just outside Wadsworth (additional dumpsters had been placed at the rest area with signs telling people to dump their Burning Man trash, which they had done; however, when asked why NDOT placed the dumpsters and signs, they denied responsibility).
In 2005 NDOT told us that for the 2006 event Burning Man would need to demonstrate a method to avoid dumping trash or pay a financial bond. Burning Man developed a plan and presented it to the NDOT Regional Director. The plan included signs, Exodus reminders and front-page articles in the Black Rock Gazette and Survival Guide—all asking participants not to dump trash at the Wadsworth rest stop post-event. NDOT was so impressed with the plan that they did not make Burning Man put up a financial bond! Furthermore, in meeting discussions it came out that perhaps someone at NDOT had ordered the signs and dumpsters in 2005. A week later we received an apology letter from NDOT saying that the trash problem had been caused by NDOT placing signs and dumpsters after all, and that NDOT would not do that in 2006. Nevertheless, we continued with our plan to Leave No Trace at the rest stop. The Burning Man Project’s and NDOT’s collective efforts resulted in a report that the Wadsworth rest stop was the cleanest it has been in years, post-event!
Also noteworthy in 2006 Nevada state government relations, The Nevada Commission on Tourism sent two delegates to Burning Man for the first time, and plan to return in 2007. Although Burning Man has never hosted a Nevada Governor, the Governor’s Office has sent kind “thank you; but no thank you” letters to Burning Man. In 2007 Government Relations plans to send an invitation to Governor-Elect Gibbons to visit the fourth largest city in Nevada.
Finally, the Government Relations team negotiated a multi-year contract in 2006 with the Paiute Tribe, which will cover increased traffic enforcement costs to help keep Highway 447 safe and traffic flowing to and from our event.
2007 promises to have its share of challenges and successes as the Government Relations team continues to interface with special interest groups, local, state, and federal agencies. We also extend thanks to those of you who participated in the letter-writing campaign and we look forward to calling upon you whenever the collective voice of participants is needed to ensure the continued survival of the Burning Man event.