Bad news at Black Rock

Black Rock City LLC, the San Francisco-based money machine that organizes the annual Burning Man drug festival in the desert about 100 miles north of Reno, is threatening to move because it can't get along with its neighbors. Frankly, I like the idea of a move back to Northern California, where Burning Man originated and where it belongs.

I recommend Mendocino, where participants would have access to a ready supply of illegal drugs. Let me clarify my position on Burning Man: I don't think it should be abolished. Rather, I simply believe it should be held on private property in California and participants -- also known as "artists" and/or "free spirits" (whatever that means) -- should agree to leave their young children at home. My objections have always been about drugs and the presence of children at an event featuring adult nudity and sexual activity.

But this year there's bad news at Black Rock City, the festival's remote site on public land in far western Pershing County, where the nearest sheriff's deputy is in faraway Lovelock. And the agency responsible for federal law enforcement, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, looks the other way in exchange for a half-million-dollar payoff disguised as usage fees. Meanwhile, using their own figures, Burning Man organizers rake in approximately $6 million since each of 30,000 participants pays an average of $200 to bake in the desert over the Labor Day weekend.

So what's the bad news for Burning Man? Apparently, some self-respecting residents of nearby Gerlach and the Hualapai Valley have won a battle in the Washoe County Commission over a proposed 200-acre, year-round "staging area" in the valley. The locals describe the area as a dumpsite full of unsightly junk (the Burning Man folks call it "art") and makeshift, substandard housing for more than 100 "volunteers." Testifying at a commission hearing in March, Gerlach-Empire Citizens Advisory Board member Donna Potter said the site is "a mass of abandoned vehicles and trailers that sticks out like a sore thumb .... We don't want a bunch of junk in our back yard." And who can blame her? Earlier, another resident, Sylvia Fascio of Gerlach, accused Burning Man of creating "a massive dumpsite in full public view without regard for Nevada law, land, neighbors or even their own living conditions."

In May, county commissioners rejected the staging area/dumpsite on a 3-2 vote, but Burning Man appealed and threatened lawsuits in what looked like a Wal-mart approach to local zoning issues. If you have enough money (and Burning Man does), you can steamroll the locals and intimidate them into silence. That hasn't worked in Gerlach and the Hualapai Valley, however, where outspoken citizens have continued to call attention to Burning Man's transgressions.

One resident, who commended the county commission for "putting our community's health and safety ahead of money," told me last week that commissioners have quietly rejected Burning Man's appeal, perhaps influenced by a couple of recent problems in the area. In one incident, a BM truck crashed into the Trego railroad crossing and shut it down for about 20 hours over the Fourth of July weekend. And local authorities are investigating possible violations of state and county water regulations, looking into reports that Burning Man has been illegally transporting water from the so-called Frog Ponds, a private source of water in the drought-stricken area.

"'Leave no trace' (Burning Man's environmental policy) is a joke," another area resident declared. "They bring their trash to the Hualapai Valley and we live with it for 52 weeks a year. How would you react if I were to bring in thousands of people and leave their garbage behind?"

And while it took only six weeks for the U.S. Interior Department to deny Carson City's appeal of a controversial Douglas County BLM land sale, the Gerlach-based Black Rock Rescue environmental organization has been waiting more than three years for a decision on its appeal of Burning Man's operating permit. How, they ask, can BLM grant permission for such a massive and disruptive annual invasion of a newly designated National Conservation Area?

"How is a city of 30,000 people conducive to a wilderness potential for solitude in a pristine setting?" longtime area resident Sophie Sheppard asked in the Gazette-Journal a couple of years ago. We're still waiting for straight answers to those questions from the BLM or anyone else in authority.

One final question: Where are Nevada's conservative, family-values congressmen -- Sen. John Ensign and Rep. Jim Gibbons -- on this morality issue? Answer: Nowhere in sight. When I contacted their offices last year, flunkies fed me a bunch of gobbledygook about freedom of expression. Sorry, but freedom of expression doesn't include widespread illegal drug use and child abuse, unless you think that exposing young children to frisky naked adults and mechanized sodomy depictions doesn't constitute child abuse. Let's ask the State Division of Child and Family Services.

So let's take Burning Man organizers up on their threats to move -- but not to the Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation or Esmeralda County. They should go back to Northern California, where the festival originated and where it would be right at home.

Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.


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