Burning Man Festival Fires Up Critics


On the table-flat desert a dozen miles north of here, a city has risen from the dry lake bed, seemingly overnight.

Burning Man is back, bigger than ever.

The legendary event, named after a giant wooden man ceremoniously torched to conclude the weeklong festival, was conceived 15 summers ago as a celebration of art and radical self-expression. But critics contend its swelling popularity--nearly 30,000 people are expected to descend on the Black Rock Desert beginning today--now threatens to undermine the festival’s essential character.

Some say Burning Man has simply outgrown itself, evolving from a quirky happening into a mega-event that markets the communal experience at $200 a head.


The most serious attacks come from a smattering of high-desert neighbors and environmentalists who claim that the annual gathering has damaged the fragile ecology of Black Rock, a sun-cracked and seemingly lifeless lake bed two hours northeast of Reno. No matter how Herculean the cleanup efforts, critics say, the throngs at Burning Man inevitably leave lasting scars.

“It’s become a sort of Medusa, a monster growing more heads,” said John Bogard, owner of nearby Planet X Pottery. An early Burning Man participant, Bogard has since turned on the event, concluding that “the numbers have just become preposterous.”

Fed up with damage the festival leaves in its wake, Bogard and others have mounted an effort to shrink the swelling crowds at Burning Man--or send it elsewhere.

Though the festival will go on as planned this year, foes are pushing the federal government to begin a more rigorous review of the environmental toll. If the appeal is rejected, they probably will sue.

Festival organizers, meanwhile, vow to ensure that their massive desert celebration lives on with its spirited mix of freelance music, participatory art and pulsing crowd of bohemians, bikers, New Age adherents, rave regulars and Silicon Valley techies letting their hair down. At Burning Man, drugs are prevalent, drinking de rigueur, clothing strictly optional.

Promoters bristle at accusations that they are despoiling the desert. From the beginning, they say, the festival has been driven by an eco-friendly philosophy. When the crowds depart, organizers pledge, Burning Man will “leave no trace.”


And the desert will live on, said Marian Goodell, Burning Man communications chief. “I don’t think nature has created a better place for Burning Man than this lake bed.”

Last week, as the sun filtered through smoke from a Sierra wildfire, scores of volunteers readied the 5-square-mile encampment, known as Black Rock City.

This year’s theme is the body, and the streets have been laid out accordingly--from Feet Street to Sex Drive and Gut Alley, Brain Boulevard and Head Way. During the seven days of merriment, this municipality will be served by a daily newspaper, several radio stations and the Black Rock Rangers, a security force trained in conflict resolution and armed with walkie-talkies, nothing else.

The place buzzed. A motley band of volunteers swarmed about on bikes, dismounting long enough to hoist metal towers for a nightly laser display in the dusty sky. One dreadlocked young man wore high heels.

Elsewhere, a sculptor laid grass sod on one of three 20-foot-tall faces (the others sport skin of copper and driftwood) as a twentysomething woman without a top looked on.

At the geophysical center of it all sat Larry Harvey.

Atop a two-story platform overlooking the grounds, Burning Man’s founder and free-thinking impresario chain-smoked Camel Lights, a pearl gray Stetson shading him from the sun, and grumbled about the naysayers.


Harvey noted that the city covers little more than 1% of the 400-square-mile dry lake bed. Black Rock City, which began rising in mid-August and will be razed within a few weeks, “is not even a fingerprint in this great space.”

Burning Man began on a creative whim in 1986, when Harvey and a few buddies ignited a 10-foot man of lumber on a San Francisco beach. The annual rite got banned after a riot, so he moved it to Black Rock in 1990.

Only a few hundred participants bothered to trudge out that first year. Harvey persevered, and Burning Man earned a spot on the counterculture calendar.

During the 1990s, the event doubled in size nearly every year, becoming performance art on a municipal scale. Harvey sees the festival as a civic enterprise, a communal counterpoint to America’s sterile shopping malls and movie megaplexes.

But problems have cropped up. In 1996, a volunteer died in a motorcycle accident near Gerlach, and three Burning Man celebrants were seriously injured when a car careened through their camp. Rain hampered cleanup efforts in 1998. Last year, scores of volunteers on the waste disposal crew flaked out and fled after the event.

Organizers perennially struggled with the federal Bureau of Land Management, which regulates desert use. Though the festival has bounced to different sites during its decade in the desert, the BLM wants Burning Man sticking to one spot for now.


Les Boni, an assistant field manager for northern Nevada, said Burning Man organizers have “shown they’re trying--it’s a learning process on our part as well as theirs.”

Despite cautious scrutiny, event organizers have worked through most problems with local leaders. Today, many residents in nearby Gerlach, a town of about 350, seem to take it all with a shrug.

“It’s a show,” chuckled Jim Watt, a county road worker who has lived in Gerlach his whole life. “For a week or two, you quit talking about your neighbors and talk about it.”

But some are unamused.

“It’s just kind of a drunken drugfest,” said Susie Plank, a rancher and festival foe. “People want this to be Woodstock. But it’s not. It’s not 1968 anymore. There’s no way that 30,000 people out in the desert aren’t going to do a lot of damage.”

Bogard says each year’s festival has left blisters on the Black Rock desert. Stopping at the 1999 site, he picks up a few remnant screws, a couple of rusted metal stakes. Scorch marks still discolor the surface of the lake bed.

Worse, he said, is human waste that can well up as rains briefly turn the dry bed back into a shallow lake, a prime springtime stopover for migrating birds.


Farther north, Bogard notes low-lying berms snaking across the otherwise perfectly flat playa. Six inches or a foot high, they’re called desert serpents by locals. These transient dunes have proliferated this year and can pose a danger to anyone driving the lake bed, a high-speed shortcut by townsfolk.

Bogard blames dust kicked up by Burning Man. The land management bureau says the cause remains uncertain, while Burning Man organizers contend that rocket cars that ripped across the desert during land-speed trials in 1997 are the most likely culprits.

The biggest threats to the desert, Harvey said, are off-road motorcyclists and other unregulated groups. He considers critics such as Bogard “a minority within a minute community.”

This year, Burning Man promoters are hammering participants to think environmental--to use the flotilla of portable toilets and to bag and cart out their own garbage. The festival Web site reminds that “the price of admission does not include maid service.”

Throughout the event, a group dubbed the Earth Guardians will distribute eco-friendly literature and drum home the point with public performances. The 50-foot-tall Burning Man will sit atop a fireproof blanket to protect the playa.

“No one is as zealous on environmental issues as we are,” Harvey said. “No one educates on the environment the way we do.”


To limit dust, only bikes or walking are allowed. Portable ashtrays made from recycled cat-food cans or film canisters are being passed out.

Organizers are loath to cap attendance, saying it runs counter to the festival’s spirit of inclusiveness. Communications chief Goodell said the event, by its very nature, “cannot outgrow itself.”

But they have tried to control attendance through ticket prices. To encourage participants to come early, prices rise as the week progresses, and no tickets will be sold during the weekend. Even dogs pay; a “pooch pass” costs $100.

Though no commercial sponsors are allowed and the only thing sold inside the gates is ice, the festival operates on a $3.4-million budget under the umbrella of a for-profit corporation, Black Rock City LLC.

“It certainly has become a business,” said Sue Weeks, an erstwhile Burning Man supporter who soured because of environmental concerns. “It’s not necessarily about self-expression and art anymore.”

Organizers say most of the money goes for infrastructure--the water trucks, a sprawling wood-and-fabric cafe, miles of orange perimeter fencing and other building blocks of Black Rock City. The federal government gets about $500,000 for oversight costs. San Francisco’s underground arts community got $250,000 this year for projects. Though salaries are confidential, Goodell said, “None of us is getting rich on this.”


Harvey shrugs it off as inevitable, these raps his festival takes, a byproduct of human nature.

“We’ve become big enough that there’s a class of people made famous opposing us,” he said, adding: “It’s the giant-killer thing.”