PermaBurn: A Project Worth Saving

[We introduced you to PermaBurn earlier this year, a full-time alternative to Burning Man that is based more on principles of sustainability, like the Building Man event in Utah. Now we’re pleased to bring you some interviews Whatsblem The Pro conducted with some of the members of the Permaburn community. It provides an interesting look behind the scenes of creating Burning Man communities that persist year round.]

PermaBurn is a project located about 120 miles from the Playa, on 640 acres of private land not far off the stretch of US-395 that lies between the towns of Likely and Madeline, California.  The plan, apparently, is to provide a space with infrastructure where Burners can set up art projects, shelters, storage spaces, etc. on a permanent basis, and to host the kinds of events that Burners love to attend.

The project is both intriguing and promising, but it seems to be having some trouble getting much beyond the planning stages, although they have hosted some pretty decent-sized events there, most recently LunarBurn in May of this year.  I spoke with a small group of people who have been on-site working to make PermaBurn a viable, permanent arts festival.

WHATSBLEM THE PRO:  So what’s the vision?

PERMABURN MEMBERS:  The idea is that if we get 2,000 members of our non-profit corporation, Greg (Glover, the owner of the property) can step aside, and we can secure the property for CORE building, to keep art cars, to use as an alternative spot for people who can’t go to Burning Man, and as storage space where theme camps can just, say, drop a shipping container and keep their stuff year ’round.  It could also be a place to retire art cars that can no longer make it out there to the Playa; PermaBurn is permanent, so those art cars could just stay there as art, even if they don’t run anymore.

WTP: And in the meantime?

PM: In the meantime, there are two huge event areas out there that are usable now; we had LunarBurn up there in May, and that was pretty good.  That was almost 900 people.

WTP: How much did that cost per person?

PM: It was free for members and volunteers, which is something I’m sure they’ll continue to do. . . if we have events the members shouldn’t have to pay to get in, that’s covered by the $200 lifetime membership.  The LunarBurn tickets started at $30 and went all the way up to $75 for non-members.  It was pretty awesome, there are lots of pictures online.  We had the One Mile Clock from Burning Man there.  It was at the same time as Symbiosis, so it was really surprising to see that many people show up with this huge event going on at the lake.  We had this great laser light show on the mountain.  It was really nice.

WTP: How many members are there?

PM: There are about 75 members now that have paid their $200, and they’re all over the place, like the Houston CORE people.  If we could get more members out there interested in staying out there more often, then it would really take off.  I’ve got a little camp, with a bar and a tipi, and I’ll be going back to stay in the Spring.  I want to do the world’s largest Rubens’ tube out there. . . you know, a standing wave flame tube?

WTP: Right, like a tube that you play music through, and it has holes in it with flame coming out, and the flames dance along with the music?

PM: Exactly.  It looks like an equalizer made of fire.  And I want to do like a geodesic dome made of Rubens’ tubes where you can come inside and play your guitar or whatever into a microphone, and it’ll control the flames on the outside.

WTP: How do you think the PermaBurn community is going to organize itself to get this critical mass of money coming in?  What challenges do you face in doing that?

PM: Well, I think the only thing that’s lacking is the infrastructure.  We have 640 acres that are ready to be used for big pieces of art, or whatever.  The owner is getting tired of holding the financial responsibility for the place, but if we can get it together he’ll leave heavy equipment and all kinds of stuff out there for us to improve the land with.

The website just got redone, and there’s a mailing list now, but we need to put those things to better use.  We need to keep people who are interested updated on everything that’s going on out there, and generate more interest.  We’ve gained a lot of new members recently, and information needs to go out to those folks.
Also, the Burning Man organization has some issues with us, and we need to address those.  The logo has the Man in it, but we’re not a Regional.  That logo needs to change, maybe the name needs to change as well.  That, or we need to just become an official Regional, but I don’t think anyone wants to jump through all those hoops to become a sanctioned event.

What it comes down to is that there needs to be more people involved.  We can’t do all this with just one or two people.

I personally want to bring permaculture and greenhouses to PermaBurn, but I can’t even do that much alone.  Greg can’t do it either, he’s got so much on his plate.  There are all these resources just going to waste up there.  Once that well is done it’ll be easier, though.

Greg really wants the LLC to take over the property.  He’s the big boss for now, but he doesn’t really want to be the boss, he just wants to have one membership like everybody else.  He wants to have the LLC buy his interest in it, which is up to something like half a million dollars now.

WTP: And they’re trying to do this $200 at a time.

PM: Right. . . so they’ve got to figure out, do we go back and retroactively ask all the members to put $10 a month toward it, as dues?  They’re going to have to do something like that; it’s like $3000 a year in taxes for the land.  He paid $300,000 for the land and he’s invested like 100K in machinery and he’s got all the equipment to grade the roads and grade all the land.

WTP: But nobody to run it.

PM: Except himself, and he’s sort of driving himself mad in a sense trying to take it on by himself.  It’s just a herculean task for one man.  So there’s a lot of chaos up there, and that’s kept a lot of people from wanting to get involved, this reputation for being not so easy to work with.  This seems to be the story you hear from a lot of people who try to go up there and work.  So far they haven’t got enough cohesion and leadership within the membership to figure out, OK, do we really want to make this our land and do events consistently every year?  It’s like, OK, for $200 I’ll buy in and if everything starts happening, great, I’ll already be a part of it.  But $200 is not a huge chunk of change, so there’s not enough commitment there.  And even for that $200, they haven’t given a receipt for that membership to anyone except for one or two people, so the execution of the whole plan is really pretty disorganized.

WTP: What drives people away, do you think?

PM: It spills over into them sort of acting out towards other people, out of some rage that was cultivated between the two of them, but there’s just an unhealthy work environment in terms of working with people and coordinating with people, it seems like a chaotic kind of situation.

WTP: So what they really need up there is people with skills, but people are being driven away?

PM: Yes, because Greg is under the impression that nobody will come and build a permanent camp unless they have well water and a septic system.  People have told him that they have to haul water in from town and run back to town twice a week or so just to fill up their jugs.  It’s just too much effort for people to make on a long-term basis; it’s too much like camping.  So he’s gotten the permits for the well and the septic system and started work on that.

WTP: He’s thinking “build it and they will come.”

PM: Exactly.  And if the idea is that it’s going to be a real Burner community, then maybe it should be the community that builds the infrastructure, not one person.

WTP: Or there should be a DPW.

PM: Yeah!  There should be a DPW.  There should be Rangers.

I think at this point he’s feeling like a failure, because it’s been six, seven years of trying to get the project off the ground, and he just feels like he’s not a good enough communicator to get people up there motivated enough to help him get it all done.  I’ve told him there are avenues for raising funds for community projects like a well, there’s Kickstarter, Indiegogo. . . and then he talks about “well, maybe it’s just an event space, maybe we just need to hold events and not deal with trying to build this community of permanent camps.”

So, at this point he’s pretty much taking the position that he needs to sell the place, and he can give it another two years if the PermaBurn membership is willing to go out and expand the membership and purchase the land from him, so he can have the same amount of power as everyone else, just one membership.  He’s kind of giving an ultimatum to the community to get that done within two years or he’s going to sell it.  He’s frustrated and running out of resources, but he’s a good guy with a great vision.

WTP: Where is the nearest Regional?

PM: The nearest Regional is Reno, and then down in Vegas they have a small Regional burn, something like two or three hundred people.

WTP: How is Permaburn not like Burning Man?  How do they differ?

It’s a whole lot less regulated.  Permaburn is really trying to be anti-regulation, to avoid all the regulation that Burning Man is subject to.  That’s the biggest reason why Greg has really sort of pushed back against this idea of becoming a sanctioned Regional.  I mean, his slogan is “leave a trace.”  He wants people to bring big art projects out there and install them permanently.  And we’d like to see a sort of self-sustaining thing going on out there too, with chickens and goats and food being grown.  We can’t do any of that and comply with Burning Man’s insistence on “leave no trace” too.  It would be great to bring kids up there and teach them about things like permaculture.

The permit to burn up there starts in May and ends right before July, so we don’t have a real big window for big burns up there.

WTP: But people can leave structures and art installations there all year.  What kind of weather do you get?  What kind of extremes of temperature?

PM: It’s 6,500 feet above sea level, same as Tahoe, so it gets cold in the winter.  There’s snow.  The ground freezes for several months, the rainy season is only about a month, off and on.  Short growing season.  But the ground out there, you add water and wow, it’s really fertile.  There’s a lot of clay in the area too, but you get the ground wet and things just start growing.  There’s good water not too deep.  I planted some raspberries up there, which need a lot of water, and I left them on their own for weeks while I was traveling.  They were thriving when I came back.
You really need a vehicle up there.  It’s still extended camping to be up there, you need to run to town for supplies, you need to take your trash and recycling out, dump your shit tank and so on.

WTP: Where do you get your supplies?

PM: The towns are real small up there.  It’s about a 45-minute drive to go to a store at all.  Alturas has a lot of options if you’re willing to spend a little more, but there’s really nothing in Likely.  Susanville is probably your best bet for shopping, and that’s about eighty miles away.  There’s a place in Alturas where you can buy all kinds of steel stock really cheap, though, and that’s handy.

WTP: What do you think is going to happen, realistically?

PM: Um.  It’s going to sit there stagnant, unless people come and commit to it. . . and there’s a window that’s closing, because the owner doesn’t have unlimited income; he’s got just enough to keep PermaBurn going for another couple of years, but he says that if the community doesn’t start making serious progress on buying the place from him, he’s going to have to start looking for buyers pretty soon.  At this point, he’s exhausted and exasperated because he doesn’t know how to rally the troops.  So I’d say that if the community doesn’t start taking steps to get more people up there, maybe get the Burning Man organization involved, or a Regional at least, some kind of community participation, then things are going to just fizzle out in about a year from now.

A lot of the membership lives in Reno; they were having Town Hall meetings and getting together to kind of hammer things out and come up with ideas, but that’s kind of gone dormant.  Getting those meetings happening again this winter in Reno to plan things out is really going to be critical.  The Houston CORE people want to build something major up there, not just something quick and easy.

There are lots of people out there who would bring art to Permaburn if they had some help with transportation and some support.  A non-profit corporation could seek grant money to pay for things like hauling materials in for people identified as worthy artists.

You could do a workshop up there on building your own shipping container space.  Greg’s already figured out how much each container would cost to get it up there and all, and you don’t need a permit because it’s movable.  I think the price is $2500 for a 48-foot container, and then $750 to have it delivered all the way out there.

  I was intrigued by the mention of the meetings taking place in Reno, and I wanted another perspective on all this, so I got in touch with Rod Coleman.  Rod is the Director of PermaBurn Art Collectives, the LLC that is trying to buy the land from Greg Glover.  I visited Rod at his home in Reno and spoke with him about PermaBurn.

WHATSBLEM THE PRO: How did you first get involved with Burning Man?

ROD COLEMAN: Y’know, I’d heard about it for years living in Reno.  My wife at the time thought it was just a bunch of dirty hippies in the desert, and for that and whatever other reasons I just never made it out there.  When we separated, I was talking with the lady who cuts my hair and she said “hey, you know Burning Man is coming up in two more weeks, right?” and I realized that hey, now’s the time.  In that two weeks, I put together an art project, got all my stuff together, and just went out there and had a great time, just camping solo and doing my thing.  It just kind of spiraled out of control from there!  I started doing more and more stuff to help with the organization.  The Reno CORE project started here at my place. . . this is kind of an incubator for theme camps as well.

I also organized First Ashes, the first Reno-Tahoe Regional campout event, and we’ve had a number of those with fifty to a hundred people.  It was called Stone Soup last year, and we see that continuing.

WTP: What about your history with PermaBurn?

RC: The whole PermaBurn thing has a lot of history, and of course there’s been some drama.
I’ve been involved with PermaBurn since 2007-2008 I guess.  The long-term idea is to hold the land in common and allocate space for various projects.  Projects would evolve, maybe some would come and go, but we’d basically be doing what happens at Burning Man on a more permanent basis.
The LLC was established and came up with an operating model that was basically a compromise with a couple of different camps – for instance, one camp wanted a very flat voting structure, basically a democracy – but the problem is that we need ALL the owners to sign to ratify the operating agreement, and some of them have been pretty hard to track down.

WTP: The owners being the people who have paid $200 each for membership?

RC: Right.  We need a signature from every one of them to ratify and get our LLC going.  So we have no operating agreement, and can’t really do anything – like get a bank account – without that in place.  There really is no way to go forward without finding these people who need to sign, or getting them to sell us their shares back. . . but that’s really in Greg’s hands, since he is the one who collected the money from people.  Since nobody has an actual contract or a receipt anyway, we may just have to scrap the $200 membership thing and come up with a better game plan and then invite those people into it once it’s viable.

I don’t want to make Greg Glover sound like a bad guy over that; he’s not, it’s just that the original plan may have to be modified in order to make this project work, and that’s certainly through no fault of Greg’s.  He has really put a lot into it and has been very generous spending money on heavy equipment, drilling a well, etc.

WTP:  What about the reports of Greg having some issues with other people working on the project?

RC: Let me fill you in on some candid detail that is quite important.  I met Greg at Fred Hagemeister’s Burner Hostel in Sparks, Nevada, where I camped out for quite a long time.  Greg stayed at Fred’s when he first came out from Georgia.  I wasn’t involved in it but I know that by the end of that season, Fred and Greg were at odds, and Fred was very negative about Greg.  Having said that, I’ve worked with Greg and even rented space in my home to Greg (which is like Fred’s, place but quieter) for five or six years now.  He stages for the Playa at my place, and I have had none of the same problems that Fred had with him…I’ve spent a lot of time with Greg and I have to say I think he’s got a lot of integrity; he’s always come through with everything he’s said he’s going to do.  He’s a very creative and driven guy.  If he’s not a perfect human being, well, neither are any of the rest of us.

Something that really should be kept in mind about Greg and about the PermaBurn project, and that’s that the really hard part has already been done, and by Greg: he stepped forward and procured a square mile of land in Northern California.  It’s a beautiful piece of land that he found, and we’ve had a number of successful events there.  Best laser show I’ve ever seen was at LunarBurn, the biggest event we’ve ever had up there.  The mountains kind of wrap around the valley and make for a great show.  Finding and procuring that piece of property was no mean feat; go and try to find a square mile somewhere where the authorities not only can’t enter, they can’t even see in unless they bring the helicopters and the airplanes in.  PermaBurn can’t be heard or seen from the State highway or the surrounding towns.  It’s literally in a bowl, and without driving onto the property you cannot see what’s happening there.

WTP: Impressive.  And yes, I see what you mean about Greg.  We don’t live in Candyland, and Burners do have problems with each other, sometimes very serious problems for no very good reasons.

RC: Exactly.  It’s not really anything to be too concerned about.

WTP: You bring up another good question, though: how do the locals feel about all this?

RC: There are some cowboys around the area.  We’ve worked with them and met with everybody who lives around there, and they’re cool with it.  They find it quirky and interesting, but there’s no outcry.  The worst thing that has happened has been some theft, but there hasn’t been much of that.

WTP: What happened?

RC: Someone broke into some of the containers that were out there, and ran off with some guns and shit that was being stored in there.

WTP: Guns?

RC: Yeah, there were a couple of rifles, sure.  The thieves broke some windows out, too, and vandalized some other stuff.  They shot holes in all kinds of equipment out there.  It’s the kind of behavior that really just smacks of kids, you know.  And, hey, that hasn’t helped at all.

WTP: How long ago was that?

RC: There were two incidents, I think one was about a year ago now, and I think they did something out there this last winter too, or spring.

WTP: That doesn’t sound so bad.  That’s yet another problem that goes away when you have more people involved.

RC: Yeah, a permanent presence would do wonders.

WTP: What do you think the future holds?

RC: It’s promising, and I know we can do amazing things out there. . . but I also think it’s naïve to think that we can do this $200 at a time.  We really need bigger investors, but with the downturn in the economy, it’s harder to find those people with the big money to throw around.  Also, in order for that to work, the bigger investors would need a bigger say in things.  I’ve been frustrated with the process of trying to give everyone an equal voice; it’s often like herding cats, and we’ll probably have to abandon that approach if we want to make any progress.  If our LLC isn’t able to go forward, I foresee that it will reconstitute itself in some other, more viable form.

WTP: Do you see yourself being involved in any reconstitution of the LLC that might need to take place in order to make this whole thing work?

RC: I’m certainly willing and able to contribute in terms of just getting people together and getting the word out, sure.  As far as what I can do beyond that is a matter of finding that consensus, that organization, that can come up with the funding.

WTP: How do you deal with the current members and the LLC’s obligations to them?

RC: Again, Greg has collected most of those membership funds, and he would have to address that.  The LLC itself has no obligations to anyone at this point.

WTP: What do you really need to make it all workable?

RC: There are a lot of very positive ambitions tied up in this project; the difference between the dream and the reality is large, though.  You can see the opportunity in it, but we need two things to make it work: funding, and people willing to actually go to the site and work on it.  The other piece of the puzzle is having a consensus that is realistic vis a vis proportional investment and say in the organization versus one-person-one-vote democracy.  The organization as it exists is too naïve to function.  I don’t see any liabilities in dealing with the people we’ve already attracted at $200 each; those people don’t have any kind of contractual agreement with anyone, and I don’t think they’re going to be particularly unhappy with any new deal we come up with anyway.  Some of them come up once in a while and camp, and I think they feel they get more than their money’s worth out of the place.  We need larger investors, that much is clear.  Maybe that’s rationalization; it certainly isn’t strictly just in terms of representation and so on, but we have to be practical here.  Maybe I’ve just been in the business world too long, but I think the business model’s wrong, and I think trying to go forward with the wrong business model will only lead to more frustration.

I think Greg is open to whatever discussion needs to happen.  His heart is in the right place; if someone comes up with a good way to sort all this out and move it forward, I’m sure he’d listen.

WTP: Thanks for talking with me.

RC: Thank you!  Hopefully we’ll see each other at PermaBurn sometime soon.

I plan on visiting PermaBurn in person soon and interviewing Greg Glover for a follow-up to this article.  Meanwhile, I’d love to hear some ideas from our readers. . . how do you think PermaBurn could be reorganized?

11 comments on “PermaBurn: A Project Worth Saving

  1. Pingback: Burnitecture | Burners.Me Burning Man commentary blog

  2. Pingback: The Way of the Future is the Way of the Past | Burners.Me Burning Man commentary blog

  3. I’m concerned about the reported lack of regulations. I think that every community has rules. If these are not known to all, then newcomers find that they have unwittingly broken an unwritten rule and face the consequences. This is different from having regulations that are different to BM.

    People interested in joining the community need to know the rules upfront. these can be as simple as how people treat each other e.g. how conflict is resolved.

  4. …continuation from my previous post… I think the problem of “one person, one vote” can be fixed with a “one share, one vote” solution. Until people are willing to buy Greg’s unwanted shares from him, he would have what might be called a “controlling interest.” It’s not really a dictatorship because his shares are for sale. Buy some of them if you don’t like the decisions he makes.

  5. Maybe, reorganize your corporation and make “shares” that are collectively based on the value of the property and equipment. Those who’ve paid $200 for a lifetime membership own $200 worth of shares, automatically. The current property owner owns the rest, and he sells them to anyone who wants to buy them. I’d be interested in buying between $200 to $400 worth of shares to begin with, and I might want to buy more later. Shareholders have access to the property, and they can sell their shares if they find a buyer. I know, that sounds so much like laissez faire free market capitalism, but… everyone who engages in any business venture is a capitalist. If you sell artwork or pot, or you are a musician or performer, lou are a capitalist. Like it or not. 🙂

  6. Everyone who went onto the playa, experienced Burningman and returned for a second helping, can be considered a member of PermaBurn. The $200 mentioned is to purchase the property and to fund the improvements. PermaBurn can accept tens of thousands of members and can therefore fund $200,000 worth of projects for every thousand members garnered. I hope to celebrate our 10,000th member representing 2 million dollars of capital investment. That is how the $200 fantasy came into being. The $200 price tag for a “Lifetime Membership” is so that every past and present burner can afford to join and to guarantee large numbers of participants for our events. Did I mention our events sites (3) are huge!

    • Hi Greg,

      How do you propose to attract such large numbers of people to the project, instead of relying on a smaller number of bigger investors? It seems like PermaBurn has been around for quite a while now, but there are still fewer than a hundred members.

      Also, if there’s anything in the article you disagree with, I’d love to know all about it. If you feel that it might warrant it, I’d even be willing to interview you in person for a follow-up article. . . and either way, I’d very much like to visit the property in the Spring.

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