Guy W. Farmer: DA takes David role in battle with Burning Man’s Goliath
March 3, 2013
A Reno newspaper recently asked an important question: “Who Regulates Burning Man?” Their answer seemed to be, “Everyone and no one,” but sparsely populated Pershing County injected itself into this discussion last summer when it was sued by the powerful and well-financed Bay Area corporation that owns and operates Burning Man.
Black Rock City LLC sued Pershing County after Lovelock-based District Attorney Jim Shirley, a native Nevadan who gives a damn about the Silver State, had the temerity to attempt to raise the Burners’ fees to help defray law enforcement and court costs related to the annual naked drug festival in the Black Rock Desert about 90 miles north of Reno.
Shirley also wants to enforce state and local laws regulating the conduct of 60,000 “free spirits” on public lands in his county. The free-spirited part of the annual early September bacchanal involves widespread drug use and nudity in a National Conservation Area administered by the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which rakes in more than $2 million per year from Burning Man.
In his response to the Burners’ lawsuit, Shirley wrote that “government has a compelling interest in protecting children … in an environment recognized for its lawless culture, drug usage, pornography, full-frontal nudity and ‘adult-themed camps.'” Black Rock LLC accuses Shirley of overstepping his authority, but the DA replies that the county has primary jurisdiction over the behavior of the Burners, especially as it relates to underage children.
When I visited Burning Man in 2008, I saw a naked middle-aged man cavorting dangerously near the area reserved for young children. This was after several known child molesters had been arrested up there in recent years.
So how much does DA Shirley want to charge the Burners to pay for law enforcement and court costs? They paid $450,000 last year, and Shirley wants to up the ante to $500,000 this year. “Outrageous!” scream Burner officials, who gross at least $20 million from more than 55,000 participants who pay $350 and more for the privilege of baking in the desert and enduring blinding sandstorms for three or four days.
“They do it for the companionship and the art,” say those same Burner officials. Yeah, right. Tell it to a federal judge in Reno.
Shirley (David) refuses to be intimidated by the Bay Area money machine (Goliath), even though BLM, Reno and Washoe County don’t seem to care about the presence of young children at an X-rated event.
“They (the Burners) spend a lot of money when they come through here,” said Reno Mayor Bob Cashell. “If this (Shirley’s attempt to enforce the law) is going to affect that, we need to oppose it.” Translation: Collect the money and forget the children.
Although I realize that the Burners do make a major contribution to Northern Nevada’s economy and that Gerlach now depends on the annual event for its economic survival, that doesn’t mean local authorities should ignore what goes on up there in the fall. The Burners have done some good things for Gerlach and they should be able to reach an accommodation with Pershing County by paying their fair share of the costs and leaving the kids at home. Is that too much to ask? I don’t think so.
• Guy W. Farmer, of Carson City, is a longtime critic of Burning Man.