The Natives Are Restless

“Proposed arts and fire event stirs controversy”, reads the front page headline in the Lovelock Review-Miner. This story served to awaken and aflame locals, before a city council meeting to consider another Burning Man related event happening in the area. Compression is partly funded by the Black Rock Arts Foundation, and plans to tour Nevada as part of the state’s sesquicentennial celebrations.




Proposed arts and fire event stirs controversy 
Compression! funded in part by Burning Man
PHOTO BY TEEJE JAMISONJustin Cunningham’s art car flame effect displayed at Compression! Art and Fire 2013 in Reno.
PHOTO BY TEEJE JAMISONJustin Cunningham’s art car flame effect displayed at Compression! Art and Fire 2013 in Reno.

Debra Reid
Staff Writer for the Lovelock Review-Miner / Winnemucca Publishing, Inc.

LOVELOCK – As Pershing County and Burning Man officials negotiate a new law enforcement agreement, local conflict has re-ignited over the counterculture festival. Heated discussion is likely at next week’s city council meeting as officials consider an event funded in part by Black Rock Arts Foundation, a subsidiary of the Burning Man organization.

“I’ve heard concerns from the public that this is a way to promote Burning Man activities in the local community,” County Commissioner Carol Shank warned an event organizer from Reno last week.

While other counties experience an economic boom during the festival expected to draw more than 58,000 “burners” to Pershing County, local business owners see little or no benefit from the event. County officials must beef up law enforcement for the darker, less-publicized side of Burning Man. The county jail and courtrooms are barely adequate to handle the inevitable suspects of illegal drug activities, property damage, lewdness, sexual assaults, domestic violence and child endangerment. 

Conservative community leaders believe the permissive Burning Man “culture” presents immoral temptations to local youth and are wary of any activities directly or indirectly associated with the festival including a proposed event called “Compression! Fire and Art.” Organizers are requesting permits to stage the event in a city park on Friday, June 20. The date coincides with the Nevada State Firefighters Association Conference expected to draw firefighters and families from around the state.

Frontier Community Coalition Director Jeff Munk said he’s investigating the proposed Compression event and its ties to Burning Man before he’ll decide whether to publicly support or oppose it. He’s concerned it would encourage youth involvement in a festival allegedly dominated by widespread illegal drugs, nudity and promiscuity. Last week, he expressed his concerns to county officials.

“I’m worried that we’re going to get a lot of ‘burners’ coming in and what will that teach our children?” 

Munk said he’s also concerned by statements on a festival website implying that organizers are attempting to promote the event’s culture in communities throughout the country and beyond.

“I support arts and culture in the community but I don’t want anything that promotes drugs, alcohol or promiscuity,” he said. “I’ve asked to be on the city council agenda to give our findings on this event.”

“Compression” has been part of the Reno Artown scene for the seven years and is a “community-driven” event according to organizer Erika Wesnousky of Reno. At last week’s county commission meeting, she acknowledged that funding sources include the Black Rock Arts Foundation along with Nevada Arts Council and the Reno Arts and Culture Commission. The event could be tailored for rural communities including Lovelock and Fernley as a part of the state’s sesquicentennial celebrations.

“I’m a member of the Reno fire-performance troupe known as Controlled Burn and I am a burner,” Wesnousky told commissioners. “I’m a 25-year resident of Nevada and a teacher in Washoe County.”

Local youth groups, artists, performers and vendors would be invited to participate in the event, she said. Fire performances by Controlled Burn, interactive sculptures, art installations, art cars and other elements from out of town could be included.

County Commissioner Pat Irwin asked Wesnousky to characterize local public input on the event.

“It has been both positive and negative unfortunately,” she said. “There is some support within the community. Outside of this community, there is great interest. There are a number of Reno dance troupes that would like to come here and introduce their youth programs.”

In response to an inquiry by County Commission Chairman Darin Bloyed, Wesnousky said she’s affiliated with Burning Man as a volunteer but denied any public relations role for the festival. 

“The Reno event has been successful so my goal has been to use that as a template throughout Nevada for arts events,” Wesnousky said. “Events can be whatever a community wants beyond the fire arts.”

Wesnousky said she’s received support for similar events in Fernley and elsewhere. Her intent is to facilitate alternative arts and performance opportunities in urban and rural communities.

My regret is that people see it just as a Burning Man cause rather than an arts and culture cause,” she said. “I wish that they could get beyond that. My hope was strictly based on the fact that the Reno event has been so successful so it’s obviously a great working model for community development.”

Local event organizer Jennifer Osborn said she’ll invite performances by the local 4-H Sign Language Club, the Lovelock Paiute Tribe and other groups. An artist and a para-professional instructional aid specialist for special needs children in the local school system, she emphasized the event’s potential cultural and economic benefits.

“Last year, Compression! had 8,600 attendees and raised over $100,000 for the Reno community,” Osborn said. “This year, they want to take it on the road as a celebration of the state’s sesquicentennial and to enhance and showcase the performing arts in Nevada.”


It’s a shame that the stigma of Burning Man may be working against the arts and culture in Northern Nevada. Especially when the local community seems to only be against them over one primary issue.

Staff writer Debra Reid followed her story up with another front page story, which was picked up by Kolo8 News in Reno as “Could Burning Man Soon Ban Minors?” The issue of minors at Burning Man has not gone away for the local residents and authorities. As well as County Commissioner Carol Shank, we have BLM Winnemucca chief Gene Seidlitz, District Attorney Jim Shirley, and local Sheriff Richard Machado all united in the belief that the event should be 18 and over.


Local activists pushing for minimum age limit at Burning Man 
Sheriff agrees but uncertain about enforcement issues at event
DEBRA REID • The Humboldt SunBurners watch flames destroy multiple playa sculptures during Burning Man 2013.

Debra Reid
Staff Writer for the Lovelock Review-Miner / Winnemucca Publishing, Inc.

LOVELOCK – An initiative to outlaw minors at Burning Man is underway in Pershing County. Sexual predators, illegal drugs and alcohol abuse are among the potential hazards to youth at the annual counter-culture event, according to local anti-drug and child welfare activists.

“What happens on the playa isn’t just about nice artwork,” said Jeff Munk, director of the Frontier Community Coalition headquartered in Lovelock. “I’ve heard from people how beautiful the art is but have they been to other parts of the event where there is open sex and drug and alcohol use? We can’t fight Burning Man but I wish to heck they would not allow anyone under the age of 18 out there.”

Last week, Winnemucca Bureau of Land Management Supervisor Gene Seidlitz said he believes the county sheriff may have the authority to enforce an age restriction at the event. The BLM governs public land use and other federal concerns but not local regulations regarding minors at events.

A minimum age limit for Burning Man participants makes sense to Pershing County Sheriff Richard Machado but he’ll consult with local legal authorities, including Pershing County District Jim Shirley, regarding his authority to enforce such a restriction at the festival.

“I’ll get with the district attorney and probably other legal advisers like the state attorney general,” he said. “Is it my professional opinion that this is an adult event? Absolutely, it is an adult event and I don’t believe children should be out there for a lot of reasons. Certainly, I will check on my authority to make this an adult event.”

Machado, who’s campaigning for a second four-year term as county sheriff, has overseen law enforcement at Burning Man for the last three years. A restriction on minors has been considered before but “it was suggested that I leave that alone,” he said last week. Now, he may re-consider that option.

“There’s some support in this community but maybe other communities that this should probably be an adult event,” he said. “Frankly, it would make my job out there easier. I wouldn’t have to make plans to close the event due to a missing child and other issues such as child endangerment would go away.

Pershing County District Attorney Jim Shirley agrees the Burning Man event is not suitable for children but said he would need to research whether the sheriff could outlaw children at the event.

“Minors under the age of 21 aren’t supposed to have alcohol,” he said. “There’s a lot of alcohol and drugs out there and there’s a lot of activity that isn’t for a younger crowd. With the number of rapes that we had last year and the other violent crimes, it would be better that minor children were not out there.”

The issue is complicated by AB 374, legislation passed last year by state lawmakers giving counties the option to exclude large outdoor events from local event ordinances. During negotiations over the legislation, Pershing County officials agreed to exclude Burning Man from the local event ordinance.

In return, Black Rock City officials agreed to end ongoing litigation against the county, Shirley said. That litigation continues, however, with an appeal by BRC after their 2012 lawsuit against the county was dismissed. Shirley has filed a response to the appeal in another attempt to end expensive litigation.

We’re not so sure that last paragraph is accurate, even though it was printed in the local Lovelock newspaper. At the start of this year Burning Man, Pershing County, and the BLM reached a deal, angering a local judge:

He ordered the federal case closed but not before he again accused both sides of collusion, fraud and an abuse of process, and repeated his concerns about exposing children to public nudity at the festival in the Black Rock Desert about 100 miles north of Reno.

young drunk stupid judgeIn an unorthodox move, he also granted a motion the county had filed July 31 seeking approval of its right to enact an ordinance banning children from attending the event. And he renewed his sharp criticism of the county’s legal team’s willingness to negotiate a deal that he says ensures no such ban will take place under a new 10-year-law enforcement agreement.

…Black Rock City filed suit in 2012 arguing the county’s proposed ordinance would be unconstitutional if it banned children, or prohibited “obscene, indecent, vulgar or lewd exhibitions” protected under the First Amendment as free speech.

Jones said in his ruling on Monday the county should have stuck to his guns because he would have upheld their right to pursue such rules.

“BRC, in collusion with the county’s counsel, filed and prosecuted this contrived, pre-textual lawsuit in order to obtain its new and illegal agreement with Pershing County, and in doing so, committed a fraud on this court, Pershing County and the Nevada Legislature,” Jones wrote.

County counsel mimicked BRC’s charade, encouraging its client to settle on such obviously unfavorable and illegal terms,” he said. “It raises serious questions regarding the county’s decision to settle.”

Jones said the agreement implies the county cannot prevent minors from attending the event “even when state and local laws concerning child endangerment, child delinquency or child trafficking are implicated.”

Such a contract is obviously illegal and no court would enforce it,” he said.


Has the long standing issue about kids around alcohol, drugs, and nudity been resolved? It seems not. There is more at stake than the simple question of “should the Burning Man community welcome kids” – this is also about the permanent community who are allowing us to have our event in their neighborhood. Do we have the right to impose our morals and rules upon them, and ride roughshod over their own? Some would argue “yes, because look at all the money we bring into their community” – however, this is being debated by the locals. The last poll we ran split Burners almost evenly on the issue of kids at Burning Man.


12 comments on “The Natives Are Restless

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  4. We held our Compression Art & Fire festival last night in Lovelock with great success. Lovelockians will understand Burners a little better for having attended or volunteered at the event. We began with local children’s bike and other activities and performances, then while we charged up our flame effects truck, local musicians, performers and a gunpowder painter shared their talents. At dark, the park was packed for the fire arts (fire dance, large-scale flame effects, and a fire garden). Many of the firefighters and community leaders joined us, and sang our praises, invited us to participate in their future events and assured us that there was tremendous appreciation and support for what we had gifted to Pershing County residents. We are very happy to have represented so many great people in the Burning Man community in our effort to heal the rift and make something good happen in a rural Nevada community. Boy, did we have fun! So, on to Fernley next Saturday, Join us, please.

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  8. How about people teach their children the morals that they want them to have and allow them to make the choices for their own lives… “there is alcohol there”… So a better way to raise children is to not expose them to things and discuss it openly… Yes, if I don’t see it and shield my children from it, it never happens… Oh, and when they eventually grow up, and I don’t have the ability to keep my children in a social bubble, they will be prepared to make wise choices themselves… These ignorant arguments are so frustrating, the people making them, shouldn’t even be allowed to raise children, you are raising victims and perpetuating ignorance on future generations… Isn’t it our jobs to prepare our children, so they can make their own choices, or do you plan on out living your own children, and make all their decisions for them, throughout their short lives…

  9. I’ve been back in my hometown of Lovelock for almost twenty years now, and watched local “leaders” drum up a lot of noise over this every year. We really do need some support from Burning Man that will try to work with the local culture here, instead of taking the attitude that they are unstoppable, and the county can just deal with it. How about roping off certain areas as adult only? Some of the people around here will never be happy, but there is still a strong Nevada live and let live point of view with most of these folks.

    • My reply ended up in the wrong place…

      Some regional burns only admit people over the age of 18, and stain the fingers of those under 21 with indelible UV ink so you can check for underage people at your bar with a little UV light. Then again, they have concern that everyone have a good time. Never seen a cop at the one I go to, though the property owner tools around in a ATV. Also, no RVs! 🙂

  10. I supposed the BOrg should buy more property in the county? At some point they can have enough influence on the locals.

    As many have suggested, they should shop the Burn, like the Olympics does, to find a venue that actually wants the event. But since the BOrg owns enough local BRC-related property for extra profit, a change in venue is not in the cards.

    With the embittered locals, and the BOrg goal to reject veteran Burners in favor of newbies, it will be interesting to see if the NV Burn survives long enough for the Burning Man Project non-profit to have its own independent BOD who can make less BOrg-profit-centered decisions. All I know is that none of the other (truly) non-profit stone soup organizations I belong to are run like this. If they did, they would not be around for long.

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