The biggest burn ever

BLM sets Burning Man's population at 60,900

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Black Rock City, shown here in 2011, is about to get bigger.
PHOTO BY WILL ROGER

steve@sfbg.com

Burning Man is more popular than ever, judging by a demand for tickets that far exceeded supply this year, after selling out last year for the first time in its 26-year history — and now this year's event will be far bigger than ever.

The Bureau of Land Management, which manages the Nevada desert where burners build Black Rock City every August, has set a population cap for Burning Man at 60,900, an increase of more than 10,000 over previous events.

For Black Rock City LLC, the San Francisco-based company that stages Burning Man, there was mixed news in BLM's June 12 permit decision.

BRC was denied the multi-year event permit it sought, but as it struggles to meet demand for this increasingly popular countercultural institution, BLM honored BRC's late request for more people than the 58,000 it had sought for this year.

"After further discussions, there were requests for a bit more," Cory Roegner, who oversees the event from BLM's district office in Winnemucca, told us. Asked why BRC sought the population bump, he said, "The more people they can have, the better."

BLM has been processing BRC's lengthy environment assessment and its request for a five-year permit that would allow the event to grow steadily from 58,000 to 70,000 people in 2016. The cap for this year could have been set as low at 50,000, creating some drama around this announcement, but the agency instead issued a single-year permit with a population cap of 60,900.

BRC was placed on probation last fall after violating its 50,000-person cap by a few thousand people each on Sept. 2 and 3, and BLM rules limit groups on probation to a single-year permit. BRC has appealed the status to the Interior Board of Land Appeals, which has not yet acted on it or answered Guardian inquiries.

"Unless we do hear back from them, Black Rock City would be precluded from a multi-year permit," Roegner told us.

He also said that if BRC violates the population cap for a second year in a row, it could be barred from holding future events, although the high population cap should mean that won't be a big problem this year, clearing the way for Burning Man's steady growth through at least 2016.

"Based on the evaluation [of this year's event], we will consider a multi-year permit going to 2016," Roegner told us.

BRC has already sold 57,000 tickets and will give away thousands more to art collectives, staff, and VIPs. But the cap is based on a daily population count and BRC board member Marian Goodell said the event never has all attendees there at once.

She said staying below the cap this year shouldn't be difficult given that many of those who build the city and work on the major art pieces leave before the final weekend when the eponymous Man burns. "Usually at least 6,000 leave before we hit the peak. Sometimes more on dusty, wet, or cold years," she told us.

It could have been a lot more difficult. BLM officials had told the Guardian in April that they were considering keeping last year's population cap of 50,000, which could have presented BRC with a logistical nightmare and/or ticket-holder backlash in trying to stay under the cap.

"The issue between us and the BLM continues to be the population cap," Burning Man founder Larry Harvey told the Guardian.

Harvey, Goodell, and others with BRC took a lobbying trip to Washington DC in late April trying to shore up political support for the event and its culture, arguing that it has become important for artistic and technical innovation and community building rather than just a big party.

Harvey told us he believes that Burning Man could grow to 100,000 participants, although he conceded that would need further study and creative solutions to key problems such as getting people to and from the isolated location accessed only by one highway lane in each direction.