Uh-oh! Burning Man placed on probation by the Feds for exceeding population cap

[UPDATED 5/2/2012 – update at end]

Last year Burning Man sold more tickets than the permit allows3,963 more. Their explanation was that people leave during the event, and the permit is for the total number of people who are there at any given time.

It seems like this explanation didn’t wash with the Bureau of Land Management, and Burning Man has now been put on probation for having crowds larger than 53,000 on September 2 and 3, 2011.

BRC was issued a notice of noncompliance decision for exceeding the daily population cap of 50,000 allowed under terms of its special recreation permit for the weeklong celebration of radical self-expression leading up to Labor Day, said Gene Seidlitz, manager of the BLM’s Winnemucca Field Office

If they are on probation 2 years in a row, the event may be cancelled.

If organizers are placed on probation two straight years, Seidlitz warned, the agency may suspend or cancel Burning Man’s permit and/or deny future permit applications.

He said it’s important that organizers stay within the population cap because planning for law enforcement, sanitation and other services needed for the festival is based on that figure.

“It’s a huge liability for BLM to ensure we have enough staff in place to do monitoring and logistical support, and for law enforcement to handle that number of participants so it’s safe and secure and everyone can enjoy it,” Seidlitz told The Associated Press.

This could potentially create problems, if there is not any approval in June for the increased population cap. The new permit allows for 70,000 people, with Burning Man preferring slow growth and only selling 58,000 tickets for this year, which is the lower range of the new permit recommended in the Environmental Assessment.

Seidlitz said Burning Man’s probationary status does not jeopardize this year’s event. His agency issues special recreation permits for the event on an annual basis, and has yet to grant one for this year.

The probationary status also will not delay the BLM’s action on an environmental assessment concerning the effect of BRC’s request to gradually increase the festival’s daily population cap to 70,000 over the next five years, he said. A decision is expected by early June.

BMOrg is appealing the agency’s ruling to the Interior Board of Land Appeals, which has set no time table for reaching a decision.

Burning Man spokeswoman Marian Goodell declined to comment because the matter is pending.

But in a February interview, she said organizers interpreted last year’s special recreation permit to allow “in the neighborhood” of 58,000 people to be present at any one time.

“Their (BLM) comfort level is a little too conservative,” Goodell said at the time. “BLM should be giving us the breathing room to be able to produce the event safely.

How does the BLM count the difference between 50,000, and 53,963? At the gate is difficult, because multiple people are in each vehicle. Perhaps they count people leaving during the week, and subtract that from the total number of ticket sales.

[UPDATE 5/2/2012 –

Burner Scribe has added some real journalism to the story, over at the Bay Guardian. Some highlights:

“Probationary status limits the Bureau of Land Management to issuance of a one-year permit,” said Cory Roegner, who oversees the event from BLM’s Winnemucca office. His office put BRC on probation after it reported populations of 53,341 on Sept. 2 and 53,735 on Sept. 3, although BRC has appealed the ruling to the Interior Board of Land Appeals, which has not issued a ruling.

…This places BRC in a precarious position given that it has already sold 57,000 tickets for this year’s event and will be giving away thousands more to staff, groups that have received art grants, and a host of other visitors and VIPs (last year, three members of the Board of Supervisors attended and Mayor Ed Lee is rumored to be mulling a trip this year).

Roegner and his boss at the BLM, Rolando Mendez, say it’s up to BRC to live by its permit. “Black Rock City LLC is free to sell as many tickets as they’re inclined to,” Mendez told us in February. “That’s a calculated business decision on their part, but I would expect Black Rock City LLC to live by the population cap that I set.”

And then an interesting update from Maid Marian, via text message:

BRC spokesperson Marian Goodell responded to our inquiries via text message, downplaying concerns over probation and the population issues. Initially, she wrote that probation “won’t effect 5-year permit process,” and when we noted that Roegner said it would limit BRC to a one-year permit, she wrote, “We are still continuing the 5-year permit process. The probation is under appeal.”

We asked how BRC plans to abide by this year’s population cap given that it has already sold or distributed more tickets than the number of people allowed by the permit, she wrote, “Easy. Usually at least 6,000 leave before we hit the peak. Sometimes more on dusty, wet or cold years.”

Once again, the numbers don’t seem to add up. We have Burning Man themselves saying they sold 53,963 tickets in total. We have a BMOrg Director saying that every year thousands of people leave early, and 6000+ people left before the peak. And we have the BLM telling us that 53,735 was the peak according to their count. So they should have been around 48,000, well within the cap. The disparity in the count is thousands of tickets, a fuzzy margin of error of around 10% of the total tickets. The amount of money involved is more than $1 million. It is unclear what happened to the counting – someone is wrong, by a large amount, either BMOrg or the BLM. Presumably BMOrg know the exact number of tickets they sold, and it would be relatively easy to count who left…so how does the BLM count it, to get such precise numbers? Perhaps these issues will be discussed in the appeal.
It’s funny how closely the “official” Burning Man ticket sales number, matches the count of the officials. Close, but not absolutely perfect – this is why double-entry book-keeping was created, as discussed on The Borgias this week. This type of close disparity is usually a red flag for auditors. Did someone sell a few thousand extra tickets for cash, and not report those to the Feds? Seems like the gate would be a convenient place for this sort of thing to occur, it certainly is at most live events.
We first raised the issue of Burning Man selling more tickets than last year’s permit back in February. They seemed to be jumping the gun a bit – wouldn’t it have made sense to have a late release of more tickets, once the bigger permit was approved? Sense has been sadly lacking in this ticket debacle, although the perspective of “what makes sense” very much depends on whether you think the decisions are being made for the benefit of Burners or Scalpers.
The probation makes the issue more significant, since there now seems like a real chance that a temporary permit gets issued. We would expect that to be for 50,000 as it has been the last few years, while they’ve been working on the Environmental Impact Assessment supporting the new population cap which the BLM will be deciding on next month.]

The case for Air Burners is only getting more compelling.

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