Burning Man’s Environmental Impact: BALLS, Thrusters, Hummers, land yachts and water fleas

Have been doing some research into the impacts of the event. It seems the Sacred Playa has a population of water fleas that must be preserved at all costs. There are also a bunch of recreational users throughout the year who are not Burners. Whether it’s them, or us, someone is damaging the Playa by the creation of sand dunes.

This report from 2008 is quite interesting in terms of photos of what’s bad, as well as highlighting some innovative ideas of what’s good. Slip-n-slide? Bathing pools? Nuh-uh, fuggetabouddit. And I had no idea they burned the Bummer Hummer – at least they kept the tires!

I found more recent reports from 2010 and 2011, but less interesting.

Of course, it is not only Burners who trash the Playa. It’s unique distinction of being the flattest place on earth led to the World Land Speed Record being set there in 1997, by the world’s biggest automotive thruster, rocket car Thrust SSC – the first car to ever travel faster than the speed of sound. So if you hear a sonic boom on the Playa, it might not be Robot Heart or Root Society!

It seems that Burning Man may have led to the creation of sand dunes that damaged the Playa for other recreational users.

I. Affected user groups and activities

It’s unusually flat surface and open space provides for activities that depend on the desert.  As the surface degenerates, unique opportunities are being lost by a wide range of users.  The ‘land of many uses’ is becoming less so.

A. Land Speed record attempts

The current land speed record was set on the Black Rock in 1997.  The surface is no longer sufficient for the needed miles of track.  Teams have looked elsewhere but choices are few.  The Bonneville salt flat cannot support the weight of such vehicles and other areas lack physical and/or bureaucratic access. 

B. Rocketeers

Fugitive dust is worse every year, particularly at the September AeroPac and BALLS events which are downwind from the Burning Man clean-up.  There are limited locations in the US to obtain a 100,000-foot FAA flight waiver.

C. Landsailors

The surface is no longer smooth enough for dirt boats.  Many in the sport have been forced to move elsewhere.

D. Recreation at large

Transient dunes have increased in both size and coverage across the desert.  The hazard they present to those travelling across the desert has induced the BLM and the various user groups to include on their websites and other communications warnings against driving too fast on the deceptively flat open surface.

The next part about attendance numbers hitting the permit size is also interesting. The author raises the point that the BLM may not even care about more tickets being sold than the permit, because that makes more money for them. They get a flat 3% of the gate – based on BLM’s reported takings of $1.2 million as conveyed by BMOrg director Will Chase, this is $40 million at the gate which means BMorg could be selling 100,000+ tickets per year.

B. Black Rock City population limits

As determined by both the Burning Man and BLM, the previous EA identified 50,000 as the limit for effective site management.

1. The population approached the 50,000 limit in 2007 (47,366) and 2008 (49,599).  During all 5 years of the previous EA, BLM never developed a contingency plan should the population limit be exceeded.  In 2010, ticket sales exceeded limits set in the EA and the population was 51,515.  One questions the need for establishing policies if there is no intended enforcement or consequences for violations.

2. The need for accurate census data diminished when permit fees to the BLM changed from a per person/day method to a cost-recovery basis not tied to the city population.  Is the primary concern event management or calculating permit fees?

Sections of Playa closed, others open to public

It is the largest event on Federal lands in the United States.

Permit fees paid to BLM are 7 digits.  In terms of both the number of users and fees, Burning Man is the largest permitted event on public lands for any US federal agency.  Given the nature of the event activities and the fees involved, it is not surprising that Burning Man commands much public visibility

While Burning Man is open, the Playa is still open to the general public too. Just not so much of it.

This site also has some fantastic historical images of the Playa since it was first mapped in 1843 by John C Fremont.

1987 - Which came first, BRC or airport 88NV?

The playa in 1926

The Navy (!) built a tent city there in 1956

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