The BLM's Burning Man environmental impact statement is terrible, calls for drug searches, dumpsters, and a 19,000,000lb concrete wall

The Burning Man event is seeking a renewal of its 10-year permit to use the federally owned Black Rock Desert site managed by the Bureau of Land Management; the BLM has responded with a bizarre, overreaching Environmental Impact Statement that ignores the lavishly documented record of Burning Man's excellent safety and stewardship record.

For example, the new Environmental Impact Statement calls for Burning Man to hire an outside security force to replace its all-volunteer, community-based Black Rock Rangers, and to have these rent-a-cops search all belongings of all attendees: 80,000 people in 30,000 cars, in a high-wind, low-visibility environment where, in addition to the threat to privacy there is also a massive risk of huge amounts of personal belongings being whipped away by the wind and blown all over the desert.

The EIS also ignores Burning Man's status as the world's largest, best-managed "leave no trace" event, where every piece of waste down to individual sequins and metal shavings are picked up and packed out by attendees. Instead, the BLM wants Burning Man to install several football-fields' worth of dumpsters at the event's exit, with parking for 30,000 vehicles to pull up to them. In addition to eroding the norm of stewardship and waste-management that is intrinsic to the festival, this would also deprive the nearby Pyramid Lake Paiute dump sites of the millions they take in from burners who pay to have their waste legally disposed of.

The EIS also calls for the creation of a 19,000,000 lb concrete jersey barrier to encircle the site, replacing the trash fence (a wildlife-friendly fence that catches blown waste) and the perimeter patrols (which are hugely effective at catching people sneaking into the event). The concrete barrier would do untold habitat damage and cause scarring on the playa, as well as disrupting wildlife.

There's lots more — including a mandate for the festival to conduct anti-drug surveillance of attendees, volunteers and staff, which is simply out of scope of the National Environmental Policy Act.

The Burning Man Organization has published an extensive backgrounder on the EIS's deficiencies and a guide to submitting comments to the public docket.

Here's my comment, submitted yesterday:

To whom it may concern:

I am a Burning Man attendee who has attended every year since 2011, and I'm
part of the Liminal Labs theme camp, which celebrated its 20th
consecutive year this year. I am a research fellow at the MIT Media Lab
and a Visiting Professor of Practice of Library Science at the
University of North Carolina, as well as a Visiting Professor of
Computer Science at the UK's Open University. I am also a New York Times
bestselling novelist whose 2013 book, "Homeland," features extensive
action at the Burning Man festival.

I object to several of the recommendations in the Draft EIS, for reasons
set out below:

* Mitigation NAT-2

Burning Man is the world's largest and most successful Leave No Trace
event. Our camp — and every other attendee, almost without exception —
packs out *all* its waste. Every year finishes with a multi-hour
scouring of our site with rakes and garbage picking tools to ensure that
not so much as a single metal shaving or zip-tie remains on site. We
take extensive measures — tasking someone to travel to a paid dumpsite
in a designated rental vehicle, then taking that vehicle to a car wash
to make it presentable for return — to ensure that our waste is
properly disposed of.

For the few bad actors who practice illegal dumping after the event,
Black Rock City's Highway Cleanup Team conducts exhaustive trash sweeps
of not only of Routes 447, 446 and 34 (as required by existing permits),
and also RT 445 and Jungo Road (which are not required, but whose
cleanup is undertaken in the spirit of good citizenship).
Our camp makes use of paid dumpsites on Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribal
lands, infusing much-needed cash into one of America's poorest counties.
Dumpsters would end this practice.

Moreover the BLM's draft EIS does not contemplate the environmental
impact of maintaining the dumpsters and providing space to service
30,000 vehicles to use them.

The factual record — which is publicly documented in a detailed annual
report from the Burning Man Organization — does not support the need
for this requirement. As an expert agency, the BLM is not permitted by
law to make policy without evidentiary support.


* Mitigation PHS-1

Every year Black Rock City is one of the lowest-crime jurisdiction in
all of the state of Nevada. There is no evidence to support the need for
separate, private security forces onsite. Indeed, the Black Rock Rangers
— a experienced, community-based, all-volunteer force — are among the
most commendable and exemplary aspects of the city's management. Several
of my campmates are volunteer Rangers, and I have seen firsthand how
seriously they take these duties and how well they perform them.

The environmental impact of gate-searches is significant: unpacking and
repacking full cars in a high-wind, unsheltered, dust-storm environment
will produce an unquantifiable — but substantial — amount of
inadvertent litter, and expose people not suspected of any crime to
substantial damage to their personal property, to say nothing of the
privacy dimensions of these searches, which will force attendees to
expose sensitive medical equipment, personal journals, literary and
religious artifacts, and other private, sensitive and constitutionally
protected materials to third parties.

Without evidence of crimes or risks that justify these high financial,
privacy, personal, and environmental costs represented by this measure,
this recommendation should be dead on arrival.


* Mitigation PHS-3

There is no evidence to support the need for jersey barriers, which will
blight the land, impose a massive carbon footprint on the event, pose
unquantifiable environmental risks, and burden the festival with
unjustifiable and substantial financial costs. The existing trash fence,
combined with Black Rock Ranger patrols and other longstanding measures
have a very long track record of keeping trash in and unpaid attendees out.

Without any evidence, the BLM should not ask the festival to spend $3m
to install 19,000,000 lbs of concrete barriers in a sensitive desert


* Mitigation PHS-6

Again, there is no evidence that existing ambulance and EMS services are
insufficient to handle the existing rate of injury at the festival —
and ample evidence that existing measures are sufficient (per capita
mortality and morbidity from all causes at Black Rock City are among the
lowest in all of Nevada). I am certified in first aid and wilderness
first aid and on two occasions I have used my training to help injured
people at Burning Man, tending them while waiting for trained EMTs to
arrive; in both cases, EMTs arrived in under 15 minutes.


* Mitigation AQ-1

With the exception of wind-storms, the only dust I have seen at the
festival that was present at sufficient concentrations to pose a health
and safety risk was kicked up by law enforcement vehicles operated by
local LEOs and BLM officers, who routinely flout BRC's 5m/h speed limit.
If BLM is concerned about Black Rock City's air quality, they should
train their officers to obey the law.


* Monitoring Measure PHS-1

The National Environmental Policy Act cannot be lawfully stretched to
cover surveillance of this sort. It is grossly improper for BLM to
request it.


Concluding remarks:

The BLM's Draft EIS reads like a farcical wish-list concocted in an
evidentiary vacuum. Burning Man is a superb steward of public lands, a
model for how other events should conduct themselves. Administrative
agencies are not permitted to act without evidence. The festival's
organizers and volunteers have painstakingly compiled and published
detailed, longitudinal studies of the festival's *actual* environmental
impact. This Draft EIS seemingly considers none of that factual record.

(Image: Kyle Harmon, CC-BY)