I'm going to take it easy on Burning Man this summer because I feel sorry for the organizers of the annual drug festival, scheduled to take place over the Labor Day weekend in the remote Black Rock Desert in far western Pershing County, where law enforcement is minimal.
Apparently, Burning Man founder Larry Harvey and his merry (or not so merry) band of "free spirits" are having trouble making ends meet on gross receipts of more than $5 million.
Late last year, Harvey complained that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management had doubled fees from $2 to $4 for each Burning Man participant. Let's do the math: festival organizers estimate that 28,000 people will attend this year's event, paying an average admission fee of $180 (a conservative estimate). That means the "non-profit" organization will rake-in slightly more than $5 million in entry fees and the money-grubbing BLM will collect a 2 percent surcharge on each admission, resulting in additional revenue of $112,000 to the Feds. And this is unreasonable?
"Before 1999 we paid $2 (per head); then it doubled," whined Harvey to the Associated Press in San Francisco. "That's a gross inequality." Lord Larry accused the BLM of attempting to profit from his "non-profit" event. But then, one person's inequality is another person's ripoff.
In all, the BLM collects about $500,000 from Burning Man to cover administrative and security costs, and some clean-up activities. Last fall, the AP reported that the revelers discarded "countless wood chips, cigarette butts, pistachio shells, orange peels, nails and other debris" on the desert playa, but made no mention of condoms or hypodermic syringes. Although two regional groups, the Black Rock Rescue organization and the North West Great Basin Association, have protested cumulative ecological damage to the desert caused by more than 10 years' worth of Burning Man, the BLM and its parent agency, the U.S. Interior Department, have stonewalled their complaints. Conclusion: $500,000 can purchase official indifference and/or silence.
In an op-ed piece published by the Reno Gazette-Journal last August, NWGBA spokeswoman Sophie Sheppard noted the irony of issuing a BLM permit for a mass event held within the newly designated Black Rock Desert/High Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. "How is a city of 30,000 people conducive to a wilderness potential for solitude in a pristine setting?" she asked. "NCA stands for National Conservation Area, not National Recreation Area." Good point, Sophie, but is the BLM listening?
I also feel sorry for Larry Harvey & Co. because a national video production company is making money off the drug festival. Earlier this year, Burning Man filed a lawsuit against the company for producing and selling a soft-core video featuring the naked ladies of Black Rock City. Imagine! Someone is videotaping nude people cavorting out in the open on public lands. So what else is new? The same thing happens every year at the Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
My objections to Burning Man haven't changed since I first wrote about it five years ago. Specifically, I object to widespread illegal drug use on public lands and the presence of small children at an event that flaunts adult nudity and sexual activity.
On the drug issue, I refer you to the "Piss Clear" Web site, which describes itself as Burning Man's alternative newspaper. In a 2001 "drug guide to the playa," Piss Clear recommended acid ("It can produce a really great trip"), the designer drug Ecstasy ("Our substance of choice"), and crystal meth ("If you don't want to sleep, this might be your drug of choice"). And don't forget that the biggest LSD bust in Nevada history -- more than 100,000 doses worth at least a half-million dollars -- took place at Black Rock City in September, 1998.
If you consult the festival's own illustrated 1997 coffee table book, "Burning Man," you can read an essay by "free spirit" Bruce Sterling on how much his 9-year-old daughter enjoyed the festivities, especially those "drum-pounding maniacs in the grip of hallucinogens." And Piss Clear noted that although children were once a rarity at Burning Man, "it's obvious that the playa has become a playground."
I wonder what the kids thought of last year's most notorious piece of "art," a 12-foot-high, mechanized plywood depiction of sodomy presented by the Jiffy Lube (Get it?) homosexual encampment. In other words, this isn't family entertainment, as Via and Nevada magazines attempted to portray it last year.
"Our children aren't being brainwashed or otherwise influenced by Jiffy Lube's antics," insisted family camp coordinator Kamakhya Devi in an interview with the Reno News & Review. "There was a plethora of beautiful art, a wealth of wonderful people and an entire city that was virtually free of violence and hatred." Except, that is, for a couple of attempted rapes and fatal traffic accidents on the Pyramid Lake Highway.
One of my friends urged me to ignore Burning Man this year on the theory that it's in trouble and will soon collapse of its own weight. I certainly hope he's right, but the sooner Burning Man moves back to the Bay Area, where it belongs, the better for all concerned. Good riddance!
Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.