A Burning question for the BLM

U.S. Bureau of Land Management officials seem to employ a double-standard for making land-use policy decisions in Northern Nevada. For example, they're mightily concerned about alleged damage to recently discovered fossils caused by off-road vehicles in the Ruhenstroth area of Douglas County's Pine Nut Mountains.

But they're much less concerned about cumulative environmental damage caused when 30,000 aging neo-hippies and their vehicles descend upon the Black Rock Desert National Conservation Area near Gerlach over the Labor Day weekend for the annual Burning Man drug festival.

Not only do BLM bureaucrats downplay Burning Man's negative environmental impacts, they also turn a blind eye to widespread illegal drug use and the presence of young children at an X-rated event on public lands. Go figure!

So what's the main difference between off-road vehicles in the Pine Nuts and a temporary small city erected on the formerly pristine Black Rock Desert playa? Well, one difference is that the BLM stands to make between $500,000 and $600,000 from Burning Man. That provides the federal agency with at least a half-million reasons to look the other way when thousands of "free spirits," or "artists" - take your pick - invade the desert playa every September. Meanwhile, festival founder/organizer Larry Harvey of San Francisco and his cohorts gross approximately $6 million by charging admission fees starting at $200 per person.

"Burning Man has an excellent track record," said Dave Cooper of BLM's Winnemucca field office on May 21 as he announced approval of a two-year permit for the counter-culture festival. "This group teaches and practices 'leave no trace' and other large events can learn a lot from it." Burning Man publicists couldn't have said it any better.

But then, BLM officials frequently serve as de-facto promoters for the festival by praising the Burners' alleged leave-no-trace environmental policy and laughable zero-tolerance drug policy. The truth is, as the Associated Press reported from Reno last week, that "drugs, clothes and inhibitions are optional" at Burning Man - a little something for the many children in attendance.

So while they endorse and virtually co-sponsor a drug festival, and hold it up as an example for other groups to emulate, BLM officials crack down on off-roaders in Douglas County. Writing in the Appeal on May 16, Stan Gaworski of the Pine Nut Mountain Trails Association said BLM's emergency closure of 2,300 acres in Douglas County "is a blatant slap in the face" to citizens' groups that have worked with the agency on public input in recent years.

"Our association and many other groups ... took part in a lengthy series of meetings ... on BLM's process of formulating a new Pine Nut Mountains Management Plan," he wrote. "During all of this (process) there was never any mention of an emergency closure needed due to fossils found in the year 2000 .... To single out off-highway vehicles as the primary source of damage to fossils is ludicrous."

Gaworski called the emergency closure "a poor example of land management" and said a more logical approach to the problem would be "to secure just the immediate area of the fossil find." Although this sounds logical to me, BLM bureaucrats have the final authority to manage public lands in our state. And so they close a large tract of public land to the public in Douglas County even as they welcome tens of thousands of spaced-out campers and their vehicles - and even airplanes - to a National Conservation Area in northern Washoe County. Be prepared for a crash or two.

Congressman Jim Gibbons, a Reno Republican with a college degree in geology, criticized recent BLM land closures at Sand Mountain near Fallon and in the Pine Nuts. "I am extremely frustrated with the ongoing trend of denying public access to public lands," he commented. "This alarming trend must be reversed." He spoke out after BLM implemented a voluntary closure program at Sand Mountain to protect the Blue Butterfly, which reminds me of the famous Carson Wandering Skipper. Remember that one?

Meanwhile, Burning Man participants are already gearing up for yet another lost Labor Day weekend in the Nevada desert as BLM bureaucrats and elected officials adopt their usual out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach to the annual festivities.

As for their "no significant (environmental) impact" impact findings, Black Rock Rescue, a Gerlach-based conservation group, appealed BLM's Burning Man permit approval about five years ago on grounds that "the cumulative environmental impact ... has been masked and mischaracterized as 'insignificant '... when the true impact is highly damaging."

That carefully documented appeal disappeared forever into the bowels of the Interior Department in Washington, D.C., and Black Rock Rescue never even received the courtesy of a reply from the Feds. So what else is new? They treat us the same way on the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump issue.

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Nevada GOP powerhouse Sig Rogich has accused his fellow Republicans of "political lunacy" for passing a pro-Yucca Mountain nuclear dump platform plank at their state convention in Reno last month. I agree with Rogich on this issue.

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


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