Burning Man population cap set at 60,900, way more than ever

Black Rock City, shown here in 2011, will be bigger than ever this year.
Will Roger

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 as 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 a problem 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.

"We think we could go to 100,000 if it was measured growth, carefully planned," Harvey said.

On the transportation question, he said, "it's a question of flow." Right now, participants arriving or leaving on peak days often wait in lines that can take four hours or more.

"We've talked to engineers that have proposed solutions to that," Harvey said of the transportation issue, although he wouldn't discuss possible solutions except to say, "You could exit in a more phased fashion."

Roegner said that was one of the big issues identified in the EA. "We are taking a closer look at a couple items this year, traffic being one," he said. Another one is the use of decomposed granite, which is placed under flaming artworks to prevent burn scars on the playa, and making sure it is properly cleaned up each year.

BRC was facing a bit of a crisis in confidence after this year's ticket debacle, when a new lottery-based ticket distribution system and higher than expected demand left up to two-thirds of burner veterans without tickets. The resulting furor caused BRC to abandon plans for a secondary sale and instead sell the final 10,000 tickets through established theme camps, art collectives, and volunteers groups.

"It's pretty obvious that we'll do something like that again because we don't expect demand to go down," Harvey said of that direct distribution of tickets, which was criticized in some burner circles as promoting favoritism and undermining the event's stated principle of inclusivity.

Now that BRC has received a high population cap, it could conceivably sell more tickets to this year's event, something Goodell said the board will consider, weighing that against the imperative of staying under the population cap this year. “The board needs to talk about what the ramifications of that are. There is a lot of demand out there,” Goodell told us.

Harvey emphasized that much of Burning Man's growth is occurring off the playa — in cities and at regional events around the world. "All of this is by way of dealing with the capacity problem. I don't know how much we can grow in the Black Rock Desert," he said.

Another realm full of both possibilities and perils — depending on one's perspective — is the ongoing development of The Burning Man Project, a nonprofit that BRC created last year to gradually take on new initiatives, followed by taking over staging of the event, and eventually (probably in five years) full control of Burning Man and its brand and trademarks.

"God knows, we have a lot of opportunities before us," Harvey said, adding that BMP is now focused on fundraising. "It is the objective before we transfer the event to start transferring the regional events, and that will take more money and staff."

After that, he sees unlimited potential to grow the culture, not just Black Rock City. "We've got to focus on the people. We're becoming less event-centric," he said. "We think of this as a cultural movement."

Guardian City Editor Steven T. Jones is the author of The Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert is Shaping the New American Counterculture.


I'm not sure at this level of participation that this is counterculture anymore. It is the culture. A culture of excess of profligate waste of resources. I think it went downhill after the disorient rave fraternity buses showed up and didn't want to give anyone ride cause you weren't in their social clique. how LA. Hopefully there is still some original thought there and not just mindless partying. It used to be leave no trace event. now it has become a leave no couch event.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 12, 2012 @ 11:22 am

Give the man credit for finding a way of making serious money out of bad art.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 12, 2012 @ 11:33 am

Bad art? The dear reader is being all too kind. Burning Man is the Special Olympics of art.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 13, 2012 @ 11:21 am
Posted by Guest on Jun. 13, 2012 @ 11:32 am

Then why has so much Burning Man art received such prominent placement all over San Francisco, where it's received praise from real art critics? Bliss Dance on Treasure Island, Future's Past on Patricia Green in Hayes Valley, and the Gothic Raygun Rocket at Pier 14 -- all built for Burning Man -- are the best and most technically advanced public artworks currently on display in San Francisco. And at burner-run studios such as American Steel and NIMBY Warehouse in Oakland and The Box Shop in San Francisco, burners are regularly producing the best large-scale artwork coming out of the Bay Area today. Like many critics on this thread, you don't know what you're talking about and you should probably stick to commenting on thing you do.

Posted by steven on Jun. 13, 2012 @ 2:26 pm

Then lets see you go out there and do better.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 24, 2012 @ 4:36 pm

Being "inclusive", rather than an "exclusive" event means that anything goes. As in "let your phreak flag fly" just so long as you do not interfere with someone else's experience. You certainly have an opinion, yet who are you to judge? What have you built or made to share with (and delight/disgust?) 50,000 other dusty souls, lately?

Jubilant people abound in Black Rock City ... some burning with 'soul fire' and many merely running amok, soaking it all in, testing their limits in a decidedly non-judgmental community where it's all OK. Black Rock City may be a "theme park" loaded with disappointments for you, yet for thousands of burners it's a radical, year-around social experiment in inclusion where everyone is a participant and a peer with creative value.

Posted by Vicki Olds on Jun. 14, 2012 @ 9:56 am

really? have you ever actually been there? And no one is getting rich off BM. Considering it now costs under 5 million a year to organize and produce.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 24, 2012 @ 4:35 pm

Disorient is from NY not LA

Posted by Guest on Jun. 12, 2012 @ 12:44 pm

It's not about being "counter" to anything. What the hell is that? "Yeah, dude, let's go be counter, man... yeah... counter is so cool..."

It's all about being "with" people.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 12, 2012 @ 1:31 pm

As a long time member of the Disorient arts collective, which is predominantly based in NYC, with smaller pods in Philadelphia, LA and San Francisco, I can safely assure everyone that we've never had 'rave fraternity buses', nor excluded anyone from receiving a ride (in fact, we coordinate rideshares among our camp). I can only imagine that individual campers might decline offering a ride to anyone who appears sketchy, and that is perfectly within their personal rights to do so.

Furthermore, as a participant in DPW's Playa Restoration crew from 2007 onwards, I can also attest that by the end of the event there is less than half a ziplock baggie filled with moop, as documented by the BLM assessment conducted typically in October (except that one year, when it rained).

Please try and post factual information, and not hearsay or flights of disgruntled fancy.

Posted by Ocean Disorient on Jun. 12, 2012 @ 2:54 pm

I agree with Ocean, as a member of both Disorient and DPW Playa Restoration for 3 years, this is a high quality group of hard working ,loving family that are there to promote nothing more than cutting edge awesomeness. they build the camp for the people and the bring in the top DJs for your enjoyment. the bus is for the camp and anyone who gets onboard when we roll it out is welcome to climb aboard,just not when its moving or if you are are puking.sounds like you got a personal issue with someone at disorient that doesn't reflect the other 200 of us that come, bust our ass to build sheer fabulousness for the attendees and then stay behind to clean it up.so, just because somebody didn't get on the bus doesn't mean we don't like you, and there are no frat ravers in camp, just lots of vets,artists,music lovers, and engineers.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 12, 2012 @ 7:24 pm

I should say the last year I went.. ahem I might be dating myself.... 2002 it had become a leave no couch event. I am sure that there are good people in the cleanup crews who actually care and I suppose it gets reinvented every year but there just seemed less attachement to the ethos from the general participant and more and more need for a massive RV paid for with your wall street winnings with all the fixins of home (i.e less creativity to actually feel the wilderness qualities of the landscape) and to just debauch oneself on a massive amount of drugs and leave the playa barely coherent and exhausted after a week of staying up all night leaving behind anything that your weak dehydrated body and mind could not figure out how to get into your rental truck after everyone else left your camp early. I once loved it. Also: Doesn't everyone look sketchy in the middle of the night in a wind blown dusty desert wearing fun fur and goggles? :)

Posted by Guest on Jun. 12, 2012 @ 3:52 pm

The title of the author's book is " How an Experimental City in the Desert is Shaping the New American Counterculture" hence the comment. :)

Posted by Guest on Jun. 12, 2012 @ 5:03 pm

Things evolve.

If they evolve is ways YOU are not comfortable with, either work to change the event or get your whining butt out and take your attitude to where it will be appreciated by drunks and druggies in the OC!

Posted by Guest on Jun. 13, 2012 @ 3:26 am

What a silly and thoughtless thing to say.

This is the Olympics for Creative People. I have gone to Burning Man for the past 13 years, and I have built the best work of my life for this Event. I quit making Art for over 20 years after getting my Sculpture Degree back in the 1970's. One trip to Black Rock City opened my eyes to the magic and power of Building Major Mind-bending Objects. I now do work that changes people's lives by increasing the amount of satisfaction they get out of their efforts.

Going to Burning Man also makes the rest of life on this Planet look smaller, less considered, and more adolescent. For some reason this perspective fills me with hope for the future, because I can now see paths ahead that improve my surroundings.

I go to Black Rock City to become younger, more physically and mentally healthy, and to Rock the World. Join me for a few hours someday in Black Rock City. There is a really, really good chance it will be the best few hours of your year.

Posted by Ty on Jun. 13, 2012 @ 8:30 am

Yes there is a lot of "bad art" by some subjective standards, but it's plainly obvious you've never been if you are so quick to label it all as such. Nobody has ever gone and said "wow this all sucks". Actually, maybe you might. That's why we're glad you don't go.

and as far as the "counterculture" comment. Nobody there would ever claim that it's supposed to be about counterculture.

philistine BM hatred is always amusing.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 12, 2012 @ 11:59 am

How are the scalpers feeling today?

Posted by Guest on Jun. 12, 2012 @ 12:00 pm

Burningman died when they went after Paul Addis.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 12, 2012 @ 12:14 pm

Paul who?

Posted by Guest on Jun. 12, 2012 @ 12:39 pm

The arsonist.

Posted by Joe Wiley on Jun. 12, 2012 @ 1:42 pm

He was the arsonist /artist ?/bi polar guy who took it upon himself to ignite the man early some year, I forget exactly when it was, which goes to say how important it is now.

Posted by Joe Wiley on Jun. 12, 2012 @ 1:47 pm

There were about 100 people hanging out under the man when he attempted to torch it. It ceased to be art or creative expression when he put people's lives in danger.

Posted by Game Over on Jun. 12, 2012 @ 2:44 pm

The antisocial lunatic who burned the man before the end of the week.
He then got caught trying to burn down grace cathedral in SF.

Posted by Coitthroat on Jun. 12, 2012 @ 1:48 pm

If you want to know more about Addis, here's a link to the story I did on him after he got out of prison, where he served two years for torching the Man early: http://www.sfbg.com/2010/04/27/burning-man

Posted by steven on Jun. 13, 2012 @ 2:35 pm

I thought Burning Man died on that very special episode of Malcolm in the Middle.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 12, 2012 @ 1:45 pm

You sir, are correct.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 12, 2012 @ 1:48 pm

It was the State of Nevada who went after Addis, not Burning Man. He put peoples' lives in danger with his 'art prank'.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 12, 2012 @ 3:15 pm

It's gone. All of the news stories in Huffington Post, reading about the permit process on the AP news wire over the past few weeks, it's gone. It's going to be America's 1% pretending to be all radically radical or something. It will be regular KOA with fence to fence RVs and custom built "art cars". While it has often been joked about, maybe it is time to have a counter non-event out on the deep playa with just groups of individuals. Who wants to bring the coffee?

Posted by Guest on Jun. 12, 2012 @ 12:16 pm

Let's Do it...further out..no permit and no organization...just like the first time

Posted by Guest on Sep. 10, 2012 @ 5:40 pm

Burning man is my favorite week of the year! Way less idiots on the streets of SF.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 12, 2012 @ 12:19 pm

Awesome. Now if they do decide to sell an extra +/-5000 tickets.. how will those be allocated?

Either way, this is nothing but good news (unless your trying to sell your tickets for profit.. then you may perceive this as bad news, but we don't care what you think.)

Posted by Guest on Jun. 12, 2012 @ 12:59 pm

It's still very alive and a vibrant community. I live in NYC but my Burning Man group connects me with amazing people across the globe. It might be different from what it was... but then again it is a thing. Things change.

Anyway, on this news, horray! No more worrying about tickets and now time to focus on projects for the playa.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 12, 2012 @ 1:13 pm

You think you've seen this town clear through?
Nothin' here that could interest you.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 12, 2012 @ 1:18 pm

Burning Man Sucks! Don't Go!


now please, go fuck yourselves.

Posted by Simon of the Playa on Jun. 12, 2012 @ 1:22 pm

Very clever of you Bassnectar (aka Simon of the Playa). I'll see you out there.

Posted by NinjaParamedic on Jun. 12, 2012 @ 2:15 pm

He's totally right, we SHOULD go fuck ourselves!

Posted by ApolloPan on Jun. 13, 2012 @ 2:36 am

More non-conformists than ever! They make it easier and easier to do what everybody else does.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 12, 2012 @ 1:37 pm

Is there a place to land my Gulfstream? If I liquefy a few hipsters or knock down some bad art while I'm landing, it shouldn't hurt the fuselage too much.

Posted by Chromefields on Jun. 12, 2012 @ 1:43 pm

How else would jetsetters like Ed Lee and Jane Kim fly in for 24 hours? If they didn't have an airstrip and luxury accommodations at First Camp, the city elites wouldn't be able to grace Burning Man with their presence.

Posted by Greg on Jun. 12, 2012 @ 1:57 pm

So they don't have to rough it like you.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 13, 2012 @ 6:07 am

In 1990s Harvey talked about 1M people on the playa. In 2007 Goodell said that she was happy with 35K people.

It's interesting to see the dilemmas to deal with. I'm not sure there's any cultural movement around BM, I think what people want to experience is the gathering in the black rock desert of epic proportion. The event enables people to see what they could do themselves. That's the power of that event. Some people come out of it feeling empowered, at the opposite of most organized events, where you're just the spectator and when you leave you just feel like it was a good party, but you're no-one special for all these other events. Burning Man is still great in that sense, that it's really only those who come that build something not the organizers. Of course it takes more effort and knowing people to do this today, but it's still true. With 50-70K people there, it will feel clicky, no matter what you can't escape it. That's just the nature of humans, not a problem with the event itself.

I think BM ORG could easily try to emphasize the making of things, the community feel on site, and force to reduce the large rave camps. But Harvey believes too much in leaving it to people to decide what they want to make of it, which is honorable, but limiting the rave camps size would definitely have positive effects. Also since we're reaching the 57,000 tickets sold, a budget in 2011 of $20M (http://afterburn.burningman.com/11/financial_chart.html), it would be time to give back to the people who make that event worthwhile, those who work hard and really build the community the rest of the year through art projects and camps. In 2011 only $591,000 were granted to art projects out of $20M: that's less than 3%.

You can check out this film about the history of the event to understand more what is happening: http://dustandillusions.com

Anyways. Time to go do your own BM somewhere, whatever that may be.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 12, 2012 @ 2:01 pm

You're a clever man Bassnectar (aka Simon of the Playa). I'll se you out there.

Posted by NinjaParamedic on Jun. 12, 2012 @ 2:08 pm

There is hope it is only a one year permit BMORG will screw it up again you can bet on that its over for them. "The End"
Is that a giant corn dog a work of art? or a some one gifting corn dogs?

Posted by Burning Man is dead just a freak show for losers on Jun. 12, 2012 @ 2:20 pm

When it left Baker Beach.

Posted by Becca on Jun. 12, 2012 @ 2:42 pm

Ten years since I stopped going to Burning Man...

Posted by Guest on Jun. 12, 2012 @ 3:45 pm

It is supremely interesting how so many haters & disgruntled "ex" burners read and rip on all things Burning Man!

Posted by bASs on Jun. 13, 2012 @ 8:10 am

Burning Man is dead. Long live Burning Man.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 12, 2012 @ 3:49 pm

Greedy Burning Man and greedy clueless tech money are a perfect match. Silicon Valley has ruined SF and BRC.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 12, 2012 @ 4:08 pm