Burning Man organizers say they’re being taken by doubled federal fees

The Associated Press
Monday December 17, 2001

SAN FRANCISCO – Burning Man organizers do not understand why the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has doubled fees over the past three years for those wishing to attend the popular festival in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. 

San Francisco-based Black Rock City LLC is a nonprofit with a $ 5 million budget to pull off the eight-day event every year. It covers a 5-mile section of the desert, 120 miles north of Reno near Gerlach. It ends with the burning of a 40-foot wooden figure. More than 25,000 people attended the event in September. 

It costs $135 to $250 a ticket to get in, but organizers do not rake in all of the money collected at the gate. They have to pay $4 per person to the Bureau of Land Management. 

A fee, they say, is just too much. 

“Before 1999, we paid $2 – then it doubled,” said Larry Harvey, one of the counterculture event’s founders. “That’s a gross inequality.” 

This year, Black Rock City paid the BLM $502,000. Nearly all of that money goes to the district that manages Black Rock Desert. 

But federal officials say they’re not out to gouge Burning Man organizers. The bureau is instead required by law to charge so much for various criteria. 

“We can’t negotiate it,” said Terry Reed, field manager for the BLM’s Winnemucca Field Office. “We can use either cost recovery or a fee schedule – but we have to use whichever is higher.” 

Reed also didn’t dispute the fact that the 16-year-old event, that attracts thousands of artists, techies and soul searchers, has boosted the budget. 

“It has definitely helped us financially,” Reed said. “Our receipts were around $500,000 (for the last event). After expenses – mainly processing and law enforcement – we had net revenues of about $250,000.” 

Harvey calls the fee structure an excuse to take more money. He argues the BLM, which oversees 9 million acres and 80 employees, is out to make a profit from the nonprofit event. 

“Basically, they now see us as a profit center,” Harvey said. “That being the case, they should be trying to encourage rather than throttle us.” 

Harvey said he has no intention of moving the event, which is dependent on the desert’s playa. He also does not plan on increasing admission fees, for fear it would limit the event only to wealthy people. 

“We just need to make BLM understand we can’t sustain these fees,” Harvey said. “They’re crippling us.”