Burning Questions

Burning Man, the bohemian desert festival, is a free-thinker's utopia, but at what cost to the environment?

| Fri Aug. 31, 2001 2:00 AM EDT

It's Labor Day Weekend, and in the Nevada desert that means just one thing: thousands upon thousands of urban hipsters of the dot-com and edgy artistic variety converging on the Playa -- a wide-open expanse of seeming emptiness in Nevada's Black Rock Desert. There, the ultimate in ephemeral planned communities will build a temporary town dubbed Black Rock City in which they will commune with nature, each other, and multiple varieties of substances legal and otherwise. It's Burning Man time.

Fans of the annual event, which has been growing in popularity since its inception on a San Francisco beach in 1986 call it the ultimate intentional community, a haven for harmless bohemians temporarily escaping the straight lines and right angles of their rat race lives. But some environmentalists say the festival is wreaking ecological havoc on the Playa.

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According to the Bureau of Land Managment, which approves the festival's permit each year, the Playa is an ephemeral lake bed, a remnant of Lake Lahontan, which was a major geological feature in the age of the dinosaurs. The U.S. Department of Fish & Wildlife says the site is not home to any endangered or threatened species. But there's still plenty to trample, disturb, and pollute in this fragile sagebrush ecosystem. So the BLM, along with the organizers' own eco-troops called the Earth Guardians, will be patrolling the Playa to educate attendees on ecologically responsible revelry, and try to prevent any severe damage to the land.

But even if the organizers are well-intentioned, there is no getting around the sheer scale of the festival. In 1991, the official headcount at the event was just 250. Last year, 25,400 people attended, most arriving by car or RV and setting up camps complete with the odd pit fire (unapproved fires left lasting burn scars on the playa floor last year). The organizers also routinely win permits to build temporary landing strips for smal aircraft. It's awfully hard to swallow the idea that anything that big and loud in a pristine natural space will have no significant detrimental effects.

But no one really knows what the full environmental effect of the event is, because no in-depth Environmental Impact Statement has ever been prepared. (The BLM's annual environmental assessments for the site are evailable on the BLM's Burning Man website, as is a guide to protesting the agency's approval for the event). It's arguably incomplete data that irks Black Rock Rescue, a group of environmentalists from the area who tried to block the Burning Man permit last year by filing an appeal with the Department of the Interior and the BLM. The group charged that the permit violates the National Environmental Policy Act, and that Burning Man is inflicting serious environmental harm on the playa and surrounding habitat. In its press release, Black Rock Rescue also argued that "BLM's own documentation shows that satisfactory final cleanup of the event has never been accomplished by the promoters in the years it has been held at the Black Rock."

Since then a big chunk of the Black Rock Desert was named a National Conservation Area, reinforcing the argument that the playa is more than just a lifeless expanse.

To be fair, the festival organizers have always put an eco-conscious ethic at the center of the event. The cooperative nature of the festival requires each attendee to help clean up the entire site. But even they admit that it has been impossible to literally "leave no trace." In 1999, for example, the "list of bad cleanup spots" left behind weeks after the event included used condoms, cigarette packages and butts, mylar streamers, and tattoo needles.

But maybe all the hubbub is too little, too late. Some observers are predicting an anemic turnout: Seems laid-off dot-commers aren't in a mood to party this year.

And even some loyal "Burners" are distinctly unhappy with what the festival has become. Burning Man has been criticized for years for selling out its communal values in the interest of profit and fame. An online columnist named "Dr. Cliff" has been among the more vocal critics, complaining that the event's exponential growth has come at the expense of its soul. "The individualistic cabal of coolness that 'Bman' used to be, is now a party with 25,000 guests. What irks me is that they market the 'old' Burning Man to the 'new' generation of attendees (spectators). It seems the management is cashing in on their hard-earned reputation for building an amazing event. That's okay, too -- I just wish they would drop all the pretense."

Bits and Pieces

WHAT IS THE DEA SMOKING?
Well, at least we know what they're reading. Wielding the Freedom of Information Act like a giant machete, TheSmokingGun.com has discovered exactly what periodicals can be found on the shelves of the Drug Enforcement Agency's in-house library. They include three copies of the marijuana journal High Times -- the only magazine for which multiple subscriptions are listed.

WHAT NEWT'S DOING NOW
Ever wonder what happened to the Republican everyone could love to hate, Newt Gingrich? Well, he's keeping busy reviewing books over at Amazon.com. He's ranked 442nd among Amazon's legions of DIY critics who think you care what their opinions are. Some of Newt's incisive commentary on Joshua's Hammer, a novel of international intrigue about Usama bin Laden acquiring a nuclear weapon: "This is a very fast-moving novel that captured me almost from the first moment." Our favorite feature: Under Newt's photo and a link to his personal homepage, an option to add Newt Gingrich to your "Favorite People List."

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