Burning Man, BLM and Happy Times

Did you know that Burning Man is the largest permitted event on Federal land?  As such, we are required by law (the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA) to evaluate our impacts on the environment.  The process is called an Environmental Assessment (EA) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), as the main steward of Federal Land, oversees it.

The EA Process

Burn Night 2011, Photo by Ales Prikryl

It took almost two years for the current EA to be researched and written. In December of 2010, we (together with BLM) asked our neighbors in Gerlach, Pershing County and Reno for their feedback, concerns and comments about the possibility of growing the Burning Man event. Our proposed action (the technical term for a proposal, in EA speak) requested approval for expanding the maximum population of BRC from 50,000 to 70,000 over a period of five years.

Along with a lot of support came some legitimate concerns. Using this feedback, the BLM, together with cooperating agencies including the Nevada Department of Transportation (NDOT) and the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, decided to closely analyze five areas of impact of the Burning Man Event: Carbon Footprint, Economic Impact, Traffic, Light Pollution/Night Skies, and Sound Pollution.

Research and Mitigations

Once the research team (from Aspen Environmental Group in San Francisco) knew what areas to focus on, they began creating technical reports under the supervision of the BLM scientists in Denver and Washington, D.C. The researchers started crunching numbers and consulting Burning Man about what we already do to mitigate the impacts of the event (“mitigate” is EA speak for lessening).

What they found was that Burning Man was already doing great work in these areas (hooray!) – but that there is always room for improvement. So, Chapter 6 of the EA is dedicated to additional steps we must take in order to grow the event successfully and sustainably.  The “Cliff Notes” to Chapter 6 Mitigations are listed below.

Highlights of the Chapter 6 Mitigations:

  • PREVENTING OIL DRIPS: BLM will conduct Oil Drip Surveys to determine if hydrocarbons from cars are increasing on the playa. (There’s a simple way we can all prevent hydrocarbon drips: Put a drip pan or piece of cardboard under your vehicle! And secure it from the wind!)
  • PORTA-POTTY AWARENESS: BRC will create a webpage so that participants are aware of how dangerous it is to improperly dispose of human waste. (Want to know how you can prevent human health disasters? Empty RV Waste only at the RV DUMP!)
  • INBOUND/EXODUS TRAFFIC SOLUTIONS: BRC will continue to work with NDOT and the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe to create speed limits, signs, and flagging stations at key locations along the 447 and 34 routes, including Gerlach and Empire. (How can you help the traffic flow? Carpool! Plan for delays! Keep calm and drive safely! Prevent accidents!)
  • BRC will continue to clean up trash along the roads after the event and will provide increased education on the numerous locations where participants can properly dispose of waste.  (How can you lessen the trash impact on our neighbors? Tie down your load! Dump your waste responsibly and only in designated locations!)

While these mitigations sound simple, being “mostly there” isn’t good enough. Even small acts of noncompliance – one sneaky RV dumping on the roadside here, one stray bag of trash tossed in a ditch there – can negatively impact the future of the entire event.

We need you! We’re asking for your help in spreading the word and teaching each other about these issues because we need to make sure the Black Rock Desert will welcome us back year after year.  The only responsible approach to the increased interest in Burning Man is not to just grow the event, but to grow the event safely and sustainably. In order to ensure responsible and sustainable growth, we must all be prepared to comply with the mitigations outlined by the EA.

So let’s get creative: tell us how YOU will help spread the word about these important environmental issues!


About the author: Rosalie Fay Barnes

Rosalie Barnes works year round in San Francisco as the Senior Project Manager for the Government Relations & Legal Affairs Department of Black Rock City, LLC. During the Burning Man event, Rosalie is part of the External Relations Team, a program that gives tours of the art and infrastructure of Black Rock City to visiting officials and cultural ambassadors. Rosalie received a Bachelor of Arts in Theater from Brandeis University and in 2009, she received a double Masters from Harvard, focusing on Technology, Media and Learning. She first participated in Burning Man in 2000, and came to work for the Man in 2009.

14 thoughts on “Burning Man, BLM and Happy Times

  • I saw a fair amount of trash had flown from vehicles on the road to Nixon during exodus. I really don’t want to give them any more work to do, but perhaps the exodus crew should be making sure that loose items are secure while we are waiting in the exodus line.

    Report comment

  • Yes. Want to help? While you are in exodus, in traffic, check other people’s loads!~
    We all can solve this if we work together. Regarding the trash left on the roadways, we actually have crews that start picking up trash after the event so that the highway is cleaner than when we find it. We also are going to be putting more signage this year on gate road, via the blog and elsewhere and we hope to send the message far and wide that “I am by burner’s keeper” and we all need to keep an eye out for each other and our car loads.

    Report comment

  • I manage the -)'(-Burners Against Scalpers-)'(- on FB. I have already posted this from the latest JRS issue and will repost it several more times as the event approaches. I only have about 500 members so it is safe to assume it will spread through friends and friends of friends. See you guys and gals on Playa and till then…come visit us on FB and help us help you lol.
    -)'(-Burners Against Scalpers-)'(-

    Report comment

  • I agree with everything said. The only isse I can see is the plan of growing to 70,000 in five years is clearly insufficient. Ticket shortage is having a terrible effect on the community, so I hope additional ideas for expansion are being explored.

    Report comment

  • How about opening the gates at noon on sunday instead of midnight. A lot safer driving in daylight. And it might spread out influx a little.

    Report comment

  • Hey Peace, For sure additional options for growth are being explored. We want to grow, but we’ve got to do it with everyone on board with us: the Bureau of Land Management, Nevada Department of Transportation and the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe. Although the event is in the middle of the desert, the roads that lead to that desert impact many communities. We are working with traffic planners to figure out a way to expand sustainably. And while traffic is one angle, our impact on neighbors vis a vis trash and economy is another. We are also studying the impacts of hydrocarbons on the playa surface. Every person who carpools makes a difference in this struggle to grow. Every person who puts a drip pan or cardboard under their car makes a difference on oil drips. There are no spectators here. (we all have a role in sustaining and growing this event).

    Report comment

  • I just wanted to jot this down so i don’t forget: one more thing to pack is one or two large pieces of cardboard (if you’re coming by motorized vehicle). Two thoughts:

    1. Anchor it down with those shitty tent stakes that came with it. If it’s flat on the ground, it won’t get much wind load so it’ll stay put with just those.

    2. If your cardboard is big enough, you can roll the wheels over the edges. Note that in rear-wheel drive cars you’ll need one under the rear differential as well.

    … now, to write this somewhere more prominent …

    Report comment

  • oo ooo Zhust– we have just been talking about *messages* that could be attached to someone’s email signature, or tweeted, or posted or whatever so that we could all be spreading the word… Especially with the Cardboard under the car. We need to come up with a sentence or two and then a URL that links to a blog post all about it. The blog post is forthcoming, as we (Dave X and I) are going to do one all about keeping hydrocarbons off the playa surface floor, but then we will need to get really smart about distributing the message through all the channels..!! YES YES and YES!~

    Report comment

  • You’ve all seen the freeway where there is a slight bump – dark spot from oil knocked off as the vehicle encounters the jolt. Smoother roadways within the fence (or anywhere) means less oil drips as folks make their way to their sites. Just a thought.

    Report comment

  • We’ve all seen the dark spots on the freeway where there is a bump – vehicles deposit oil drops ready to fall when encountering the jolt. Smoother driving surfaces inside the fence means less drips on the way to the site and the cardboard protection.

    Report comment

  • Perhaps an easier solution that could improve sevearl issues is to use geo-textiles on the BRC roads. By using relatively cheap geo-textiles as road surfaces (which are reusable and easily deployed) in BRC, we can mitigate our impacts and increase sustainability in several facets:

    Water: the use and reliance on local water resources (to spray the roads daily) could potentially, if not actually be reduced, while growing the BM population.

    Infrastructure: The impact on local roads and traffic patterns will be reduced as the transportation of water will decline or stay relatively static. This reduction in traffic also includes a significant reduction in hydrocarbon use and pollution overall.

    Air Quality: With the use of geo-textiles on the city roads (maybe not the playa avenues – for esthetic reasons), the amount of disturbed playa cover will be reduced which will likley decrease the effects of the dust storms affecting both BRC and the local ecosystems and communities. More people means more dust for everyone – not to mention the effects on the playa surface itself.

    Safety: the travel surface within the city would be much easier for riding bikes as the terrain wouldn’t be hollowed out or get as soft in spots – the geo-textiles can transfer the loads more evenly onto the ground. This in turn would potentially reduce the incidents of people flying over the handle bars and injuring themselves…..yes we’ve all done it…

    Well, that’s my 7 cents worth.

    Report comment

  • Oh, also the geo-textiles can be used under vehicles too. they will absorb any spills and are easily found at local gardening stores. Not to mention tranporting them and recycling them is easier than cardboard.

    Report comment

  • Comments are closed.