Leaving no trace at Burning Man
October 11, 2004
Put 35,500 alternate life-style people on a dry playa in Northern Nevada, and what do you get?
The Burning Man Festival, of course.
And what’s left at the playa after those thousands, who paid between $155 and $300 to attend, have returned to ordinary lives?
The Bureau of Land Management, which issues the permit for the affair, wanted to know, so Dave Cooper, National Conservation Area manager for the BLM, and Jamie C. Thompson, public affairs officer for the NCA, drove from Winnemucca to Gerlach last week for a personal inspection of the playa. It was the day after the Burning Man Festival management completed its cleanup of he 2,200 acres involved in the celebration.
The playa is a desolaate looking area, flat and gray and stretching for perhaps 30 miles northwards. It is ringed by the Jackson Mountains to the east and the colorful Calico Mountains to the west. It begins about eight miles north of Gerlach, a town of about 300 people. It ends to the north at the edge of the HIgh Rock Wilderness. It’s enclosed by the newly cated National Conservation Area, which is managed by the BLM.
Everything up there orbits around Bruno’s Country Club, a comfortable locals-type restaurant in Gerlach. Burning Man staffers dine ethere in a back room, locals eat there and visitors are happy to find Bruno’s after the long, lonely 90-mile drive along the dry bed of Lahontan Lake, itself far away.
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It was Thursday morning and Copper and Thompson piled into their BLM pickup and headed out on the playa. Driving on the playa on dry days is fine, like a paved highway. But when the playa gets wet it’s like driving on slick soapsuds. Happily, the rains hadn’t come yet. Once on the playa, the Burning Man cleanup crew, including Dave Pedrolii, Nevada properties manager, and Marian Goodell, communcations and business manager, joined the BLM men. A GPS was used to determinte exact position of the Black Rock City.
Back after the windup of the festival Sept. 6, Pedrolli’s work crew had taken two weeks to knock down and store the permanent parts of the outing – the small stage, the ice house – and move that to the storage area of 200 acres close to the playa. Then his crew walked the site, picking up debris, measuring from tiny splinters of wood to nuts and bolts and rags to can pull-tabs and up. All 2,200 acres, including the 400-acre central part of the circular town, with a wedge cut out facing northeast. There were 400 Jonny on the Spot portable toilet sites, and those had to be checked.
Waiting to start the BLM inspection was Roger Fraschon, the National Conservation Area ecologist. His was the final authority on how well the BMF crew had done its job. He planned to have 75 plats carefully walked for foreign objects. That would be done by fixing a pole at a GPS identified site with a rotating center in the playa, tying a line 37 feet long to the center. Then several inspectors – BLM people, visitors from Sen. John Ensign’s office, BMF workers spending one last day before heading out – would lineup along the stretched out twine and slowly walk a large circle, stopping everyfew feet to examine the playa for debris.
It was a painstaking process, each person stooping over to pick up items – tarp particles, splinters of wood (wood isn’t natural to the playa), coins, pieces of wire, duct tape, cigarette butts, hardware. Each item would be put in a baggie labeled as to the specific site. At the completion of one rotation the center would be moved to a new plat and the process repeated.
A little after noon, the crews gathered at the ecologist’s pickup to turn in their baggies from 14 sites. “The Burning Man people are getting better every year,” said Fraschon. “They’re even finding items from the years before.”
Later he will compare this year’s debris with the past findings and with findings in control areas not used by Burning Man and write a final report. But the pickings from this year certainly seemed pretty slim. The playa as far as the untrained eye could see seemed to be nothing but gray, clay-like dirt, with tire prints to be erased by fall and winter rains. Nothing bigger than a clod of dirt was visible.
So Black Rock City came and went. It followed the dictates of the mountain hikers: “pack it in, pack it out, leave no trace.” Those who claim the BLM cooperates in a coverup of damage to the playa have their work cut out for them.
There were few incidents. In the past it had been erronously reported that there were 70 drug busts in a day. That was in error; there were 70 medical incidents, which included everything from dehydration to cuts and bruises. This year no aircraft accidents, no car mishaps (guests cannot drive araound within the city).
There are no visible scars on the playa. The site where the Burning Man goes up inflames at the end of the fesitval was unmarked, due to protective coverings below.
“We find red marks on the playa where people build fires,” said BLM’s Cooper. “That’s from the iron content. No red marks here this year.”
What do the locals think about the festival?
Breakfasting at Bruno’s were Violet and Jack Phillips, who didn’t approve of the event. “It’s like a Sodom and Gamaroha out there. I don’t think it’s right for the kids.” The Phillips retired in Gerlach sevreral years ago, coming back to Gerlach where Jack hed been born.
But Bruno, a man in his 80s who runs the restaurant and a motel nearby, is all for the festival. “Look, this year, no deaths, no rapes, no nothings. Look at Reno, murders, rapes, drugs everywhere, why you wanna write about Burning Man bad? Good for Gerlach, good for town.”
Bruno speaks in his own staccato way, almost impossible to quote.
Mary Minnitle, a 30-year veteran of waitressing at Bruno’s, said simply, “Don’t ask me,” and when asked for the bill for coffee said, “Never mind, Bruno’s buying.”
John Bogard, who operates nearby Planet X Pottery, “open most of the time,” doesn’t think much of the festival. “I’ve got a pretty low opinion of people coming out here to celbrate a looser life style.”
He’s also got a low opinion of a coal-fired electrical generating plant coming into the area. “Some 2,000 people to build it and 400 to run it and all the juice goes to California. I guess I’ll have to move out after 30 years here.”
BMF staffers – there’s 24 of them year round – probably wouldn’t agree with him. The limited liability corporation has been buying up property in Gerlach and operates an office there full time for five months and part time all year. Says Goodell of BMF, “We lost money the first couple of years, and we’ll make a little this year.
“But we share with the community and schools. All profit from the Ice House, one of the most popular features BlackRock City, goes to six schools. We contribute to the ‘Save Our Water Tower” fund for Gerlach. We’ve installed computer wireless for the town, free to residents.
“Much written about the festival is sensationalized,” Goodell continued. “Every year we do better. Fewer incidents, few problems. Look at our Survival Guide.”
There the festival lists tthe 10 commandments, including: “Respect public bundries, leave no trce, Burning Man support county, state and federal laws, no firearms.”
need comment from cooper ande goodell and polish.