Burning Man Festival Now Faces The 'Bureaucratic Man'

P. Gardner Goldsmith | August 29, 2019
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Since 1986, Burning Man, the most independent of “indie” camping-music-anything-goes festivals in the US, has grown from a guy and some friends burning an eight-foot tall wooden effigy of a man just outside San Francisco, to a gathering in Nevada’s bleak landscape of the Black Rock Desert that attracts a hundred thousand attendees, advertisers, incredible engineering and costumes, and, now…

Government snoops and what some see as vindictive threats of federal “action”.

The main problem is that, though this is “Nevada’s” Black Rock Desert, the feds control it and claim to “own it”, as they do huge swaths of western land – contrary to the US Constitution. And that means the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) “owns” and “runs” the empty, flat, playa… And that means BLM bureaucrats appear to be unsettled by a massively popular, self-organized, “indie” gathering that draws mostly anti-authoritarians.

Indeed, Brian Doherty, who literally wrote the book on Burning Man a few years ago, offers via Reason a solid overview of the situation.

Dave Cooper—now an enthusiastic Burner, formerly the manager of the BLM's Black Rock National Conservation Area—says that despite the 'pushback to Burning Man' that he frequently encountered when he was responsible for processing its permits, the event 'always met the stipulations in their permit, and I saw no reason not to allow it to continue on the playa.' Things have seemed a little different this year, with the BLM issuing the first full-on environmental report on the event since 2012. The nearly 1,000 pages that fill its two volumes hint at many curious and colorful, and onerous and expensive, demands that the government might want to impose on the event.

The BLM is expressing vital concerns over birds on the playa, yet, as Doherty notes:

If you've been to Burning Man… you've noticed that the Black Rock playa on which you are camping is utterly dry and featureless, except for endless stretching miles of flaking cracked clay. It is devoid of any visible animal or plant life that didn't come in on a Burners' truck. You can do Burning Man for decades, as I have, and if you are lucky you might have one weird, miraculous sighting of a confused bird.

Why all the concern, the man-hours (sorry, for the SJWs out there, “human-hours” – wait, sorry, “hu-person” hours… er, just “hours”?) wasted on the near 1,000 page “report”, the sense of looming federal power that could crush the event at any time?

It seems to be strictly about that – a show of power.

When the draft version of the EIS came out in March, baffling and infuriating many in the Burning Man community, the agency received more than 2,000 public comments; contentious crowds showed up at a series of public meetings in Nevada, though only 5 percent of the event's attendees live in that state. Some of the more eyebrow-raising demands, such as a nine-mile concrete barrier around the event, were then walked back, or at least held in abeyance for some potential future year.

It appears that, though the BLM has stepped back from imposing expensive and frustrating top-down commands on an event that it had nothing at all to do with creating nor anything to do with its management; the bureau is simply making sure folks know “who’s boss.”

Despite an April Vanity Fair headline declaring "Burning Man Readies for War with the Federal Government," the event got its official permit in July without too much in the way of new bureaucracy that an attendee would notice—for now. The BLM is applying what it calls "adaptive management" to the event this year. That means it will be keeping an eye on nearly everything—while making Burning Man pay for the cost of its monitoring—and retaining the right to impose new restrictions moving forward.

Some of the things the BLM notes as “worries” are oil-drips from vehicles on the dead land, dust clouds, lights at night that could obscure starlight, and trash.

But Doherty observes there haven't been outside complaints about these matters, and the BLM suggestions could make problems where no problems exist. For example, they want organizers to install Jersey Barriers, which is not just a bad sign of “enclosure and control”, it will cause major environmental problems:

The concrete Jersey barrier solution would likely require more than a thousand big rig round trips and multiple thousand of crane operations to build that wall. That would damage both roads and playa far more than anything else happening at Burning Man, and it would create miles of dunes from piled particulates. (Talk about dust!) It could conceivably add $10 million to the cost of running the event, and in one commenter's words shows such a 'lack of any reasonable consideration' that it alone 'calls into question the integrity of the whole EIS document.'

And along with the barriers (perhaps, the goal of imposing barriers) that would make any dangerous situation inside the perimeter even more dangerous, since, as Doherty notes, there would be only one means of egress, the BLM is floating the idea that all entrants to Burning Man submit to…


The BLM wants to institute what its representatives at public meetings now call a warrantless "screening" of every vehicle entering the event. It does not define what that would entail, but it would clearly be a further step beyond the lame, officious traffic pretexts for stops and searches that already hassle Burners on their way to the event. (Last year the vast majority of the drug arrests from such an operation didn't go to trial.)

Nothing like that Fourth Amendment requirement of a judge-issued warrant, eh?

The US Supreme Court has a long history of striking down what are called “unconstitutional conditions”, from a 1963 case called “Sherbert v. Verner” (in which the Supremes ruled that the government of South Carolina could not withhold unemployment benefits from a woman who refused to take work on a Sunday because of her religion), to the infamous case of the Cabrini Green housing project near Chicago (in which the Court ruled that the government could not demand that folks submit to no-knock/no-warrant drug raids as a prerequisite to living in the publicly-funded housing project).

Yet the BLM seems to be threatening just that, all on barren land the feds aren’t supposed to “own”, where no one has filed for tortious property damages as a result of any Burning Man activity.

Curiously, Burning Man is famous for setting aflame a giant effigy of a human. Yet it is the government that pretends it’s a person -- and a thuggish one, at that -- as it threatens Burning Man participants and organizers over “problems” that have not seen real people complain in court.

No wonder “Burners” worry about the BLM. On every front, the feds appear to be party-poopers and more. In fact, they appear eager to invigorate a false paradigm of government command-and-control and improper, unconstitutional conditions by turning their all-seeing-eye on the Burners.

The festival – happening this week -- that’s celebrated freedom and creativity for years may be the next front in the battle for freedom itself.