Burning Man on Probation


The Burning Man festival (the subject of my first book, This is Burning Man), an experiment in temporary artistic community–and, yes, hard-partying along (and between) various dimensions–occurs on federal land in Nevada's Black Rock Desert, and is thus required to get a permit to operate from the Bureau of Land Management. (Yes, you need a permit to experiment with temporary artistic community in these here United States.)  

It has been an interesting couple of years for Burning Man. Most attendees were unaware that the event could potentially sell out, because its permit from the BLM had and has a population cap–just one the event had never pushed against before.

Last year, mere days before ticket sales were scheduled to end anyway, they sold out, creating a temporary panic among the Burning Man community. Always one to put off to the last minute that which could have been done months earlier, I hadn't bought my ticket yet. But I was able to.

In fact, everyone I know and everyone who everyone I know knows was able to get a ticket as well last year. I strongly suspect that almost no one who was ready, able, willing, and with the scratch on hand, to go to Burning Man failed to last year.

While this first ever sell out brought the event to the radar of professional scalpers, I really don't think there was a big group for them to exploit, though in those last, post sellout weeks, an average price of around $700, around double face value, seemed to dominate the secondary market, though that plummeted once the weeklong event actually began.

At any rate, I and many others thought it would have been best for the Burning Man organizers to just do a p.r. campaign stressing to scalpers and Burners alike that the "sell out" did not cause a horrific problem for that many would-be attendees and do their ticket sales the way they always had. Instead, they nervously instituted a new lottery system that was easily enough gamed by both scalpers and Burners and found themselves with a publicly unknown but likely between 80-120,000 requests. That the event that had been growing by no more than a few thousand attendees a year for years suddenly found itself with 10-15 times that many would-be newcomers seems unlikely, and the event had to invent a complicated system to allocate tickets to ensure that many people considered core to the experience had a chance to go, and an internal system to re-allocate tickets for those who want to avoid scalpers.

But now the BLM has announced that the event had actually overstepped its legal bounds last year anyway, with over 53,000 people on the event's site for two days last year despite a permitted limit of 50,000. See this San Francisco Bay Guardian report.

Burning Man has been placed "on probation," meaning that it can only get permits moving forward on a year to year basis rather than for five-year stints, and slowing down the event's hope of getting the official limit raised to 70,000 after five years.

I first wrote about the complicated relationship between Burning Man's would-be temporary autonomous zone and the forces of government and bureaucracy in a February 2000 Reason cover story. I thought then, and in my book, and now, that the relationship between the event and the Feds and local governments is so mutually beneficial (the event pays off local, state, and federal authorities to be there) that it will take a lot more than a mild permit violation to actually make the Feds kill it.

As I usually put it, I think it would take some singular accident out there that kills a handful of infants and senior citizens, the sort of scandal that will get BLM chiefs called before Senate or House hearings and screamed at about what the hell nonsense they are allowing to happen out on federal land.

This mere bit of overpopulation ain't that, and I'm confident Burning Man will survive it.

Meanwhile, the Burning Man community is trying to get more intelligent about lobbying, as per this FishbowlDC report:

The Burning Hour…[is] condensed version of that booze-filled western orgy that happens annually in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada that they describe as, ahem, "creative innovation." Now they're bringing that free "spirit" to Washington, specifically to Tortilla Coast on Capitol Hill on April 30 from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., to introduce Congressional leaders and their staffs to the Burning Man community. 

Quasi-lobbying visits to D.C. and Congress on the part of Burning Man folk have happened before and will keep happening, so this isn't new news, but such a public event certainly comes at a propitious time for the Burning Man community as they are "on probation." But it is one of the glories of representative democracy (I guess) that every interest eventually gets to (is forced to) massage folks in the corridors of power to survive.