A complex legal battle between Black Rock City, LLC, the powerful Bay Area entity that operates Burning Man, and sparsely populated Pershing County has ended in a judicial standoff in federal court. But if this dispute was a boxing match, I’d give the decision to Pershing County on points.
It was a David (a small rural county) vs. Goliath (Burning Man) battle from the beginning. The Burners sued the county last year, claiming that local authorities had no jurisdiction over the annual naked drug festival, which is held on federal land near Gerlach, about 90 miles north of Reno. The Burners objected to additional charges for law enforcement expenses and claimed the county couldn’t regulate their behavior on a remote desert playa in a national conservation area.
At the time he filed a countersuit against the Burners, Pershing County District Attorney Jim Shirley told me that “public servants shouldn’t back down just because a large multimillion-dollar corporation wants to bully us into not following the law.” The corporation, which grosses more than $20 million a year from Burning Man, opposed a modest increase in law enforcement expenses proposed by Shirley and the county, and rejected suggestions that the county could bar underaged children from the X-rated event. As an aside, it’s relevant to note that the festival’s federal landlord, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), rakes in more than $1 million per year from the Burners.
Although Black Rock City unleashed hundreds of highly paid attorneys in the battle against Shirley and the county, both sides eventually reached an out-of-court settlement that gave the county most of what it wanted, starting with increased law enforcement expenses. Although Federal District Judge Robert C. Jones criticized the settlement, calling it “illegal, unenforceable and absurd,” he acknowledged that he lacks jurisdiction to void the contract and repeated his concerns about exposing children to public nudity at the annual festival.
“The county’s concerns do not center on nudity, but rather on the blatant sexual conduct and the (illegal) drugs at the event,” Shirley told me in a recent email exchange. “The (Pershing County) sheriff still has all his rights to enforce Nevada law relating to children.” I sincerely hope the sheriff will exercise that authority when the 2014 edition of Burning Man rolls around in early September.
I’ve repeatedly objected to the presence of young children at the festival based on my own experience during a daylong visit to the event in 2008. That’s when I saw a naked middle-aged man cavorting dangerously near the area reserved for children. This occurred after several child molesters had been arrested at Burning Man in recent years.
My criticism has always been based on the widespread use of illegal drugs (not just marijuana) on public lands, and the highly inappropriate presence of children at an event featuring pornographic “art” and public performances. For example, there was the mechanized depiction of sodomy at the Jiffy Lube Camp a few years ago. You get the idea.
A Reno newspaper recently estimated that Burning Man generates some $35 million worth of economic activity in Northern Nevada, and Reno Mayor Bob Cashell has warned Pershing County not to interfere with that sizeable cash flow. BLM remains silent on the issue. In other words, collect the money and forget about the children. My hope, however, is that Pershing County will exercise its authority to regulate public conduct at Burning Man, and that the more enlightened Burners will finally decide to leave the little kids at home, where they belong.
Guy W. Farmer, of Carson City, is a longtime critic of Burning Man.