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Burner of Land Management

It takes year-round planning to host 70,000 people in one of the planet’s harshest environments.

 

Every summer, tens of thousands of people descend on the Black Rock Playa in northwest Nevada to build Black Rock City, a temporary utopia that’s the site of the Burning Man festival. Burners, as attendees are called, see the sun-bleached, heat-shimmered desert as a blank slate, an empty canvas onto which they can project radical self-expression and creativity. But Bureau of Land Management employees William Mack, Jr. and David Freiberg have a different perspective. 

Unlike Coachella, Bonnaroo or other big festivals that unfold on private property, Burning Man takes place entirely within a 800,000-acre National Conservation Area managed by the BLM, a federal agency best known for overseeing mineral leasing, petroleum drilling and grazing. That means the whole event — from the private planes dropping off techies from San Francisco to the trucks trundling across the playa to the 40-foot-tall burning effigy that gives the festival its name — is governed by federal officials and required to abide by strict environmental laws. 

An aerial view of Black Rock City, 2013

Figuring out how to safely get 70,000 people in and out of one of the harshest places on the planet without harming the environment is a full-time job — literally. In 2014, the BLM created a “Burning Man project manager” position to handle the increasingly heavy workload. Freiberg, then a outdoor recreation planner in Idaho, applied. 

He was hired. For the past three years, Freiberg’s working life has revolved around Burning Man. Mack — his boss, who manages the Black Rock BLM office — has a slew of other responsibilities, but he, too, juggles Burning Man year round, and coordinates law enforcement and emergency services during the event, among other tasks. 

High Country News spoke with Mack and Freiberg about what it’s like to be the federal government’s leading experts on Burning Man. And a couple of notes: all costs associated with Burning Man — including the project manager position — are covered by event organizers and do not come from taxpayer money. Also, the following interview was conducted by phone and email, and was edited for clarity and conciseness.

HCN: Why is managing Burning Man a full-time, year-round job? 

Mack: I only have 13 staff members in my office, and they have a full gantlet of work. The Black Rock Playa attracts a lot of people — a lot of films and commercials are shot out there. If my outdoor recreation planners have to deal with all that, there’s no way they can deal with Burning Man on top of it. It’s key to have someone who can focus specifically on this event, because there’s a lot of coordination that goes on. My phone never stops ringing with some issue or another dealing with Burning Man. It’s part of our lives all year long.

HCN: What kind of issues?

Mack: It’s not one specific thing. It’s the highway department dealing with traffic or an issue the tribes might identify. But to give you one example, this year, Black Rock City decided they wanted to implement their own commercial airline. That took a lot of coordination.

HCN: Had either of you been to Burning Man before?

Mack: Before I came to Nevada I worked for BLM Wyoming for 18 years, and I had never heard of Burning Man. I had no idea it existed. I was kind of taken aback… I’ve been involved in a lot of things in public lands in my career, but nothing like this. 

Freiberg: I’ve been with the BLM for 15 years, and as an outdoor recreation planner, I jumped at the chance to do this. It’s the biggest, most visible, most complicated special recreation permit in the country. It’s a real career opportunity.

HCN: The event just ended. Are you already working on next year? 

Freiberg: Yeah, the review process begins immediately. BLM, Black Rock City, the sheriff’s office — all the cooperating agencies start reviewing the 2016 event and making recommendations for next year. And then there’s the famous post-use site inspection, which is a geospatial exercise to determine how much MOOP — matter out of place — is left out there. Burning Man is held to a standard of no more than one square foot of MOOP per acre. Usually they pass by a wide margin. 

HCN: So does that mean Burning Man’s impact on the playa is fairly low? 

Mack: I wouldn’t say that. The National Environmental Policy Act document for Burning Man identifies areas of significant impact that Black Rock City agrees to mitigate. Part of it is trash cleanup, part of it is moving the location periodically so it’s not in the same place on the playa each year. But with 70,000 people and numerous vehicles and airplanes, there are impacts. To our knowledge, though, there hasn't been enough impact to say the playa is forever damaged.

Freiberg: The Black Rock Desert Playa is unique in that it’s an unvegetated, flat expanse of alkali lake-bed, and while the Burning Man event certainly has impacts on the ecosystem, an event of this size and scale may not be appropriate for a different landscape, such as sage-steppe grassland like you might find in Idaho. Impacts like vegetation trampling, human-caused wildfire and wildlife displacement aren't as likely on the playa. 

In most cases, though, large events like this are not well suited to undeveloped natural areas on public lands. Over the past few years I’ve received inquiries from other potential applicants for similar or related events, but usually these folks eventually opt for a private property location due to the difficulty and complexity of finding an appropriate site on BLM land.

BLM employees David Freiberg (foreground left), William Mack (center-background) and Mark Pirtle (right, hand on wheel) confer at this year's Burning Man.
Ronald Evenson/BLM

HCN: What are some of the unique challenges to planning Burning Man? 

Freiberg: The BLM is responsible for managing public lands for all the American people which includes the participants. We never overlook that primary responsibility. But there are also impacts that BLM has little or no control over: impacts to nearby communities, highways, Native American tribes and other public land users. Burning Man affects a very diverse group of people, and it’s challenging to find a way to foster communication among those different folks.

Mack: We have everyone from multi-billionaire business moguls to celebrities to crown princes of countries coming to the playa. It takes a lot to prepare for such a clientele to come to such a remote area. We have one large group of people that support and adore this event, and another that doesn’t. At the end of the day, building relationships between those groups is key to making this happen. The political aspect is huge.

Krista Langlois is a correspondent with High Country News.