Burning Man waits for US decision on big changes at festival

With Burning Man three months away, organizers are still waiting for permits and decisions by U.S. land managers that could reshape the counterculture festival in northern Nevada.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management is reviewing more than 2,000 public comments about a document released in April that assessed the risk of terror attack and included proposals to conduct drug searches and add trash bins and concrete barriers at the festival in the vast and remote Black Rock Desert.

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The environmental impact statement aims to detail how the more than weeklong event affects the surrounding land and communities, from the playa surface to air quality and traffic flow. The festival, dubbed the largest outdoor arts festival in North America, culminates with the burning of a towering wooden effigy.

A final report is expected to say whether Burning Man can increase from 80,000 attendees to 100,000.

It is expected June 14, bureau spokesman Rudy Evenson told the Reno Gazette Journal this week, meaning that permits for this festival could come in late July after a public review and other steps. The event begins Aug. 25.

Burning Man is "moving forward with planning this year's event with the assurance (from the BLM) that there won't be any significant changes," CEO Marian Goodell told the newspaper.

"The BLM has to do their job," Goodell said, "but we're disappointed that we saw such extreme options, and the draft didn't recognize the 30 years of work, the 30 years of history we have."

Organizers say the bureau's proposed changes would add $10 million to annual costs, and supporters say that mandating trash containers would attract an accumulation of garbage at a place where most festivalgoers pack out their own trash and "leave no trace" is a mantra.

The federal proposals are part of the consideration of a new 10-year special use permit for the temporary community known as Black Rock City that emerges in the desert 100 miles (160 kilometers) north of Reno during the nine-day event.

The festival, which moved from San Francisco's Baker Beach in 1990, celebrates creativity and free expression, with drum circles, decorated art cars, guerrilla theatrics and colorful theme camps. Clothing is optional.

Measures detailed in the final environmental report may not go into effect immediately or might be phased in over time when certain conditions are met, such as when the population hits a certain figure, said Evenson, the Bureau of Land Management spokesman.

The public and others could appeal the report to the Interior Department, where Evenson said there is currently a five-year backlog of cases. Appeals also can go to federal court.

Goodell, the CEO, said festivalgoers need to be diligent about properly disposing of trash during and after the event and said organizers hope the final report reflects the views of Burning Man's masses of followers.

She noted that she was involved in helping designate the Black Rock Desert as a national conservation area and that U.S. officials have a huge task in managing public land for many uses.

"I don't think they're trying to prevent us from happening," she said. "We're an anomaly; it takes courage and perspective to want to let us flourish."

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Information from: Reno Gazette-Journal, http://www.rgj.com