Burning Man has attracted plenty of eclectic people over the years, including leading conservative thinker Grover Norquist, who attended last year and seemed generally enamored by what he saw.
But the annual desert gathering may never have an ally as prominent as Harry Reid. The Nevada lawmaker and Senate minority leader has joined a battle that pits the 30-year-old festival of art and self-expression against the powerful Bureau of Land Management.
The BLM — the Department of the Interior agency that oversees permitting for Burning Man — has reportedly asked for a VIP compound to house staff at the festival’s Black Rock Desert location before it issues a permit for this year’s event.
And that has made Reid angry. Withhold-gifts angry. Leave-a-trace angry. Burn-something-in-effigy angry.
“While I agree that the BLM should take its permitting duties seriously and work with Burning Man to both guarantee the safety of its participants and the protection of the environment,” he wrote in a letter to Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell on Friday, “providing outlandishly unnecessary facilities for the BLM and its guests should be beyond the scope of the permitting requirements.”
The BLM has apparently been asking Burning Man to provide these facilities at what the festival says will be an additional cost of $1 million, a significant sum for the nonprofit. That will balloon the permit costs for the organization to nearly $5 million, up from just $900,000 in 2011. It has thus far refused to agree to the agency's demand.
The BLM generally issues Burning Man permits by the beginning of August. Without such a permit, Burning Man would not be able to move forward. The end-of-summer festival this year is scheduled to begin Aug. 30.
What precisely the BLM needs the compound for is unclear, but it is connected to safety and a larger number of staff at this year's event. According to the Reno Gazette-Journal, which broke the news that in turn prompted Reid's letter:
“The BLM has said it needs the elaborate encampment to support staff at the event. The agency is raising concerns about safety after a woman was run over and killed by a vehicle last year, and says the additional staff will attend to assess security conditions.”
Reid, though, apparently feels the BLM employees have other options at the festival, which is known for radical self-reliance, and he had a suggestion for those BLM employees who might be uncomfortable with the more free-form approach to bodily needs.
“Part of Burning Man’s philosophy is self-reliance and living with the elements is part of the experience. Flush toilets and laundry facilities can be found about 10 miles away in Gerlach, Nevada, if BLM’s employees need such amenities.”
He did not, as far as we know, suggest that Mitch McConnell provide any such services.