SAN FRANCISCO – It’s shaping up to be a bad day at Black Rock for Burning Man.
The organizers of the counterculture extravaganza contend they are being fleeced by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management – and the dust-up shows no signs of abating.
The BLM oversees the Black Rock Desert, a sprawling tract of parched land in western Nevada that annually hosts Burning Man, an eight-day event culminating with the immolation of a 40-foot-tall stylized wooden figure.
To Larry Harvey, one of its founders, Burning Man is an attempt to create an urban culture based on the exchange of gifts rather than the circulation of hard currency.
Some call it a neo-pagan rite, others an extreme exercise in cooperative living. Still others simply consider it an excellent excuse to get naked and roll in the dust and mud with like-minded fellows.
No matter how you view it, it’s big. More than 25,000 people showed up last September, purchasing tickets for $135 to $250.
Not surprisingly, Burning Man is now a major business – albeit a nonprofit one – and that’s where the conflict begins.
Black Rock City LLC, the event’s administrative entity based in San Francisco, operates on an annual budget of $5 million, has a full-time staff of 11 and employs up to 300 people during the Burning Man event.
Black Rock City also annually endows about $250,000 to artist collectives for the exhibitions and “theme camps” that bloom on the alkali playa where the event is held each September.
But the organizers don’t get all the gate receipts. They have to pay hefty fees to the BLM – too hefty, they complain.
“We’re now assessed $4 per person per day,” said Harvey, the director and co-founder of Black Rock City. “Before 1999, we paid $2 – then it doubled. That’s a gross inequity.”
This year, the BLM took in $502,000 from Burning Man assessments. Under a special federal program, virtually all of the money goes back to the BLM district that manages the Black Rock Desert.
Harvey said the organizers could simply jack up Burning Man’s entrance fees to accommodate BLM’s higher assessments.
“But we’ve reached a point where we’re unwilling to raise prices because it would skew the demographic,” said Harvey.
Higher fees would assure that only wealthy people could attend Burning Man, said Harvey, and “that would be horrible. If anything, we want to broaden access, not restrict it.”
Harvey said BLM’s relationship to Burning Man “is parasitic. They siphon off any superfluity of cash that exists. BLM is supposed to facilitate recreational use of its lands, but their policies are impeding, not helping us. Burning Man is the biggest event on BLM land in the country. They should be proud of us – instead, they’re acting like they’re suzerains and we’re serfs.”
Yet Harvey said he understands what may be driving BLM to charge high fees.
“They’re a desperately under-funded agency, and I understand the dilemma they’re in,” he said. “Under a demonstration fee program set up by Congress, certain BLM districts get to keep all the money generated by special events held in their jurisdictions – and the Winnemucca district (which manages the Black Rock Desert) is one of them.”
Terry Reed, the field manager for the BLM’s Winnemucca Field Office, acknowledged that Burning Man has been a boon.
“It has definitely helped us financially,” said Reed, whose district covers 9 million acres and is managed by about 80 staffers. For the last event, “our receipts were around $500,000. After expenses – mainly processing and law enforcement – we had net revenues of about $250,000.”
Still, said Reed, BLM isn’t out to mulct Burning Man. The agency is required by law to use a set of specific criteria to assess fees, he said.
“Our fee structure is set nationally and applied throughout the West,” Reed said. “We can’t negotiate it. We can use either cost recovery or a fee schedule – but we have to use whichever is higher.”
Harvey isn’t satisfied with that argument.
“When they use regulations to raise revenues, they’re perverting the purpose they’re supposed to serve,” he said. “Basically, they now see us as a profit center. That being the case, they should be trying to encourage rather than throttle us.”
Reed observed that the Winnemucca office must address many constituencies – not just Burning Man attendees.
“Campers, hunters, rock hounds, hot air balloonists, even amateur rocketeers – a lot of people use the Black Rock Desert,” he said. “Some groups have criticized us for even allowing Burning Man. In fact, we’re involved in litigation involving a group that has appealed our decision to issue a permit (for Burning Man).”
No other group, however, can match Burning Man in revenues. If the event folds its tents and migrates to another site, the BLM’s Winnemucca office will feel a significant pinch come budget time.
“We realize we would have to go through some adjustment if Burning Man goes away,” said Reed. “But we need to stay neutral. We don’t try to promote the event. That’s not what we’re supposed to do.”
And leaving Black Rock doesn’t seem like much of an option to Harvey – no matter how hard Burning Man is squeezed.
The playa, he says, is essential to the event. The heat, the dust, the lack of water and amenities – all form a crucible where great art is created, deep connections are made and people undergo genuine spiritual transformations.
“Burning Man can’t exist without the playa,” he said. “We just need to make BLM understand we can’t sustain these fees. They’re crippling us.”