Burning Man on probation after busting its population cap

Black Rock City, Burning Man's temporary city in the desert, exceeded its population cap last year.

[UPDATED BELOW] Black Rock City LLC, the SF-based company that stages Burning Man in the Nevada desert, was placed on probation by the Bureau of Land Management after exceeding the 50,000-person population cap at last year's event, jeopardizing its current efforts to get a five-year permit and adding a new pressure to an already difficult transition year.

“Probationary status limits the Bureau of Land Management to issuance of a one-year permit,” said Cory Roegner, who oversees the event from BLM's Winnemucca office. His office put BRC on probation after it reported populations of 53,341 on Sept. 2 and 53,735 on Sept. 3, although BRC has appealed the ruling to the Interior Board of Land Appeals, which has not issued a ruling.

Representatives from that office and BRC have not yet returned Guardian calls for comment.

Roegner has been working on finalizing the Environmental Analysis of BRC's proposal for a five-year permit that would allow the event to gradually increase from 58,000 to 70,000 participants. A draft report was released in March, and Roegner is now working on responses to the 40 comments that were received during the 30-day comment period, with the final report expected to be released the first week in June.

At that time, the BLM office would set the population limit for this year's event and issue the permit. But if the BLM probation ruling isn't overturned, that permit would be for just this year. And under BLM rules, if BRC violated its population cap again this year, it could be banned from holding events in the future.

“Population is a very important issue. That's a big focus of the environmental analysis on which the permit is based,” he told us, referring to the 2006 study that placed the current 50,000 cap on population.

This places BRC in a precarious position given that it has already sold 57,000 tickets for this year's event and will be giving away thousands more to staff, groups that have received art grants, and a host of other visitors and VIPs (last year, three members of the Board of Supervisors attended and Mayor Ed Lee is rumored to be mulling a trip this year).

Roegner and his boss at the BLM, Rolando Mendez, say it's up to BRC to live by its permit. “Black Rock City LLC is free to sell as many tickets as they're inclined to,” Mendez told us in February. “That's a calculated business decision on their part, but I would expect Black Rock City LLC to live by the population cap that I set.”

In fact, despite the fact that tickets have already been sold, it's possible that Burning Man won't even get a permit this year, although that's very unlikely and both BRC and BLM have said they have a good, cooperative working relationship. The environmental report studies alternatives that include no event, maintaining the current 50,000 population cap, and gradually increasing it to 70,000, with a 58,000 cap this year.

Roegner said the report (which you can read here in PDF form) and its comments identify traffic and transportation, air quality, and trash as key issues that could require additional mitigation measures, but he said it was still too early to determine exactly what that will mean for Burning Man and its participants.

Burning Man, which started on Baker Beach in 1986 and moved to the the Black Rock Desert in 1990, seems to be suffering from its own success. Last year, the event sold out for the first time and this year a new ticketing system proved problematic and sparked widespread criticism. But BRC officials have maintained that they're addressing the problems and creating systems to ensure the long-term survival of the event and culture it has spawned.

4/46 UPDATE: BRC spokesperson Marian Goodell responded to our inquiries via text message, downplaying concerns over probation and the population issues. Initially, she wrote that probation "won't effect 5-year permit process," and when we noted that Roegner said it would limit BRC to a one-year permit, she wrote, "We are still continuing the 5-year permit process. The probation is under appeal."

We asked how BRC plans to abide by this year's population cap given that it has already sold or distributed more tickets than the number of people allowed by the permit, she wrote, "Easy. Usually at least 6,000 leave before we hit the peak. Sometimes more on dusty, wet or cold years."

Yet Ron Cole, who lives on a ranch near the event site and made comments during the EA process, was critical of BRC for defying BLM controls and trying to substantially increase the size of Burning Man. "They should just give them a one-year permit and 50,000 cap," he told us, citing the event's impacts on air quality and limitations on getting people on and off the playa. He was dubious about BRC's behavior this year: "You can sell tickets, bill credit cards, and you don't even have a permit yet?"


"...survival of the event and culture it has spawned."

that suggests that burning man is somehow counter-cultural. aside from some exceptions, the vast majority of people who attend the event do so to escape their work-a-day lives and experience something resembling 'freedom' for a week.

it's a vacation, not a culture. on this vacation, ticket holders get to pretend to be anarchists.

Posted by Tiger Mouse on Apr. 26, 2012 @ 4:03 am

Who cares? Are you trying to make a point?

Posted by Tricksey on Apr. 26, 2012 @ 4:13 pm

the point is on the top of your head.

Posted by Tiger Mouse on Apr. 27, 2012 @ 2:34 am

So true — but burning people hate when anyone points this out ...

Posted by Guest on Apr. 27, 2012 @ 1:48 am

Fortunately I get a lot out of the event and there's really no price tag or cliché label you can put on it that will matter. Yeah, it's not perfect, oh no! If it helps me is that not good enough? I just never understood this criticism.

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Posted by Business Valuation on Dec. 07, 2012 @ 8:41 am

It's a few miles outside of Pueblo, Colorado. Everyone stays in a luxury hotel suite, orders room service, and watches TV for a week. It's crazy, man. Steven's going to write a book about it.

Posted by Chromefields on Apr. 26, 2012 @ 10:44 am

Sounds just like Coachella.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 26, 2012 @ 6:24 pm

Check out this film: It shows really well the history arc that Burning Man has followed over 30 years... It's interesting to see it become a business and losing its freedom element. I still enjoy the event, even if it's changed!


Posted by Guest on Apr. 26, 2012 @ 12:20 pm

As long as we're plugging, people can also learn more about the history of the culture and event from my book, The Tribes of Burning Man, which evolved from my Guardian coverage since 2004.


Posted by steven on Apr. 26, 2012 @ 12:36 pm

Hi Steven, I read you book and it's amazing. Because you're constantly plugging your book I'm worried that maybe you need money. Is there some way I can send you money directly? There's no shame in this. Burning Man should profit everyone.

Posted by William on Apr. 27, 2012 @ 2:39 am

After 21 years of working for newspapers, I definitely need money, but my main purpose in plugging the book is that I think those who read articles on Burning Man might also be interested in the book, which was put out by a small publisher and not widely promoted. As tempting as it is, William, to take you up on your offer of a direct donation, since you liked the book I'd be just as happy if you'd mention it to others or write an online review. Thanks.

Posted by steven on Apr. 27, 2012 @ 9:37 am

Air quality as a main concern? From the cars? That's kinda a reach if you ask me, and more than offset by the millions of dollars poured into the local economy.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 26, 2012 @ 3:47 pm

The air quality issue has more to do with dust than auto emissions. The EA studied and raised concerns about that, with 50,000-plus people loosening up the playa surface, and Cole said the air gets very dusty even in moderate winds throughout the fall. I'll be curious to see how the final EA treats the issue. 

Posted by steven on Apr. 26, 2012 @ 3:59 pm

Im reading Tribes now and as a noobie burner I can't wait for August. Im enjoying all the dialog around this year, even all the people that so badly need to be snarky about the event in general or just plain judgemental about the types of people that attend. As an artist I wish I had started burning 20 years ago. Hoping it's not too late. I attended a Noobie event this past weekend and the BRC people are an impressive, dedicated and inclusive group.

Posted by Ruby laser on Apr. 26, 2012 @ 7:04 pm

I'm so tired of hearing about burning man. Please stop writing about it and maybe it will go away.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 27, 2012 @ 8:20 am

Looking for votes, no doubt. Please, please, please, don't bring this environmental nightmare back to the Bay.

Posted by Burnt on Apr. 27, 2012 @ 1:40 pm

I've been going to That Thing In The Desert since... Well let's just say I've seen it evolve from the "drive-by shooting range" days Some of that process was painful and a lot of the changes were much needed.

In more recent years I've had the privilege of working with Black Rock City DPW
I gotta say that 99.9% of that bunch are some of the hardest working, most intelligent, generous people I have ever met. What they manage to pull off every year is nothing short of amazing. The experiences I've taken away from working with DPW are one in a million and truly remarkable.

But...I've also spent time in Gerlach pre and post event and I tend to side with the Gerlach residents. The traffic and trash, disrespectful and downright rude participants would put anybody off the event.

Anyone that's walked a "MOOP" line post event or been on roadside trash detail can tell you an entirely different story about just how green and clean the event really is and just how many "participants" actually do pack it all back out.

I've seen bicycles, boas, blinky lights, condoms, pills, $300-Craigslist-special-trashed-out-RV's, human waste... Just about every thing imaginable and some pretty fantastic and utterly inane shit, abandoned on playa.

I've witnessed "Barbie" emerging from her land yacht, depositing the trash and blithely driving away. When stopped and asked to take it with? I saw the same vehicle pull over and drop it once again along the road.

It takes months for crews to clean up the site after the event. The clean-up extends for over 100 miles along some routes, and includes all roads in every direction from the event site.

If you think DPW itself is all clean and green? Think again! "First Camp" The VIP camp? Just to the left of Center Camp? They alone use over 1500 gallons of potable water a day! It has to get trucked in from somewhere. The DPW fleet of 80 some vehicles range in vintage from 1952 to 1980's and not too many of them have all their emissions equipment intact anymore. And let's not forget the "art" cars either, not too many of them would pass a smog test. Most anything combustible gets burned post-event and lord knows what that might include.

If you think all the major players involved with the event are all that great?
One of them had a $13000 electric vehicle delivered for personal use. (It included the optional wheel package @ $200 per wheel) This is the person that decides which "volunteers" get to eat at the commissary during the event and which one's don't. A lot of volunteers, people that actually make the event happen, end up having to fend for themselves during the event while the major players enjoy catered meals. That glorified golf cart would have fed a lot of volunteers.

One major player is rumored to have hundreds of thousands of dollars of art work on the walls of their rent-controlled apartment. Is somebody makin bank off this event? It would seem so.

Another just purchased a distressed property in Gerlach so they wouldn't have to be housed amongst the DPW riff-raff. This is one of two residences they now maintain.

There seems to be an overwhelming attitude of entitlement amongst some, not all, of the major players and a "Let them Eat Cake" mentality that's kinda hard to explain or justify. We all know how that particular chapter in history ended.

Kinda leaves one with a bitter after-taste for having been there, done that. Rumors abound over many different aspects of the event and certain individuals. Wonder just how close scrutiny they'll be able to tolerate once they go non-profit?

There are also those amongst the higher ups that actually do "get it" and are right in there with the crews gettin dirty and gettin it done. I'm hoping they're the one's that eventually take over.

Yeah... The event has changed over the years and it will probably continue to do so. Will all the changes be positive?
I know I've certainly taken away some positive experiences from it and met some truly remarkable people that I wouldn't have otherwise. But after a stint behind the curtain, I'm not so sure about the future, at least not for me.

If you really believe all the towns near the event site are making bank from the event? They're not. Gerlach has had to close the one and only Medical Clinic and their Senior Center is facing the same fate. There are maybe a handful of people and businesses that benefit directly from the event but certainly not all of the surrounding communities or all the people that live nearby.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 29, 2012 @ 12:06 am

I think the permit issue is hilarious. What's the BLM going to do if the BMorg decided to call it a day? You can't stop 50,000 (or 100,000) citizens from enjoying their public lands. Even if they decide to go all at once, and all to one place. You just cut the funding strings to the LEO and BLM rangers to handle whatever issues arise. And they'll have to eat it from their own budget. You prevent portapotties from being placed in banks, and you'll end up with a Rainbow Gathering.

Posted by Guest on May. 02, 2012 @ 3:45 pm

I think that there is nothing wrong with the population cap being busted, as it merely shows the popularity of the event. What the authorities need to do is to work together with the organizers to reach an agreement in terms of how this is to be handled and what additional measures are to be put in place to ensure minimal impact of the place post-event.

Posted by Thomas on May. 10, 2012 @ 12:33 am

Really construction of the city on the desert this very large challenge and the project requires large financial expenditures - interesting what there will be the result. solární panely

Posted by Maja on Aug. 21, 2012 @ 1:31 pm

i know here so many thing about update of BRC and BRC's proposal.
Thank for great info.

Posted by Giovanna rims on Dec. 19, 2012 @ 5:32 am

I think that there is nothing wrong with the population cap being busted, but I'm not so sure how that will trickle down.

Posted by Chrome Wheels on Feb. 01, 2013 @ 9:29 pm

im not sure how i feel about the population explosion, but im sure there will be a trickle down effect

Posted by Chrome Wheels on Feb. 01, 2013 @ 9:32 pm

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Posted by golf equipment on Apr. 01, 2013 @ 5:15 am

Just released from the PR Department, Black Rock City LLC, April 1, 2013:

Larry Harvey, the founder of Burning Man, announced that given all the ongoing disputes with the Bureau of Land Management and local Nevada law enforcement, he is moving Burning Man to privately owned land on the Bonneville Salt Flats, near Wendover, Utah.

"I have been discussing this move extensively with local Utah law enforcement agencies", Harvey said, "and we are in agreement that Utah culture is a much better fit for Burning Man than Nevada culture."

A few changes will be made to the festival. Every Burning Man attendee will receive a complementary copy of the Book of Mormon at the entrance gate. Several thousand Mormon missionaries will be wandering the grounds, in their characteristic suits, narrow ties, and black and white laminated name tags, to engage the Burners in religious discussions. Instead of the Man, a gigantic golden statue of the Angel Moroni on a pillar will dominate the site.

The traditional Burning of the Man will be replaced by a mass baptism, using a huge fleet of water tanker trucks brought in from every corner of Utah.

Harvey noted: "Many San Francisco hipsters have been aching for more meaning in their lives. I feel that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is best positioned to meet these spiritual needs. See you at church on Sunday!"

Posted by Demented, Yet Terribly, Terribly, Persistent on Apr. 01, 2013 @ 6:39 am