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Environmental perfectionists try to snuff out Burning Man Festival
Dennis Wyatt
Dennis Wyatt

I am not a fan of Burning Man.

It has been taking place for the past 29 years in the Black Rock Desert in Northern Nevada after being born in a gathering in 1986 on San Francisco’s Baker Beach to burn who-knows-what in effigy — they had no idea who their bonfire represented — and to engage in hijinks with a strong dash of anarchy minus the violence.

This year’s week-long event ended Monday with some 80,000 souls plopping down a minimum of $390 a ticket.

It’s been described by supporters as a variety of things from a hedonistic experience and a week-long celebration of self-reliance and community coming together to a hot bed of creativity to a surreal Mad Max experience.

Detractors see it as a destructive force on the environment, a wanton disregard of nature, as well as being contrary to the mission of the federal Bureau of Land Management that grants annual permits for the Burning Man Festival.

I’ve never been to a Burning Man Festival and likely never well.

My idea of experiencing the desert is solo cross-country hikes as well as exploring deep and not-so-deep canyons carved by rare rain made more powerful by the arid terrain that can turn a half inch of rain over 30 minutes into flash floods that re-arrange the landscape. My favorite desert past-time is summiting peaks on my own that seem barren from the distance but are fraught with flora and fauna even at the highest desert summit I’ve reached — Telescope Peak at 11,049 feet — overlooking Death Valley.

My initial exposure to the desert — an organized private five-day group bicycling tour of Death Valley via Backroads Touring — made me fall in love with what others mistakenly believe is a barren wasteland without beauty or soul. Since then I’ve traveled 24 times to Death Valley. The first seven times was to ride the paved roads on a racing bicycling. I’ve enjoyed 10-mile long uphill and downhill stretches involving 5,000 feet in elevation change, given my quads and lungs the most painful workout in my life batting 30 to 40 mph headwinds covering the 39 miles from Badwater to where I was staying at Stovepipe Wells, to enjoying — at least after nearly having a massive heart attack — hitting 62 mph downhill on a 16 pound bicycle.

The last 17 trips have been all about the hiking.

It has led me to become an even bigger supporter of efforts to protect the desert just as my more frequent forays into the high Sierra has done the same for my desire to protect what makes California unique for all other designations man has given areas of geology on this planet.

You’d think I’d been against the Burning Man Festival. I am not.

I believe it re-enforces in the minds of 80,000 attendees what others may see as worthless land as being something worth protecting.

As part of their deal with the BLM, the Burning Man organizers when the festival is over cannot  leave behind more than a single square foot of debris per acre on the 3,600 acre site. BLM spokesman Rudy Evanson has been quoted as saying Burning Man meets the “leave no trace behind” requirement and lauds them for having “done an excellent job of meeting that criterion.”

Yet that is not enough. Some environmentalists want the festival shutdown. They have pushed for future environmental reviews to examine whether the lights and music are destructive to bats and birds. Too bad the environmentalists that embraced massive solar farms that deflect sunshine into three 40-story towers in the Mojave Desert weren’t as worried about birds. The process at one such plant has killed 6,000 birds in one year. Guess how that compares to the bird and bat death count at the Burning Man Festival? There hasn’t been one iota of any evidence bird deaths have happened.

On hike up Mt. Whitney when I’ve taken others with me, much to their chagrin when I come across used Forest Service issued bags you get when you pick up your permit so you can do the No. 2 and cart it out due to the fragile ecosystem, I will place them in my backpack and dispose of them when we get back to the Whitney Portal.

I am not without sin. Three times in the last 14 years hiking I have taken shortcuts between switchbacks on maintained trails. Not only is this not good for plant life but ultimately it will lead to erosion issues that can compromise the trail and its future use and safety of those using it.

I’m a firm believer the more people who experience the wilderness whether it is rugged seashores, exposed mountain tops, or seemingly endless desert, the more support there will be for reasonable and balanced uses and management.

The Black Rock Desert certainly isn’t being loved to death such as Yosemite Valley where the 4 million annual visitors arguably are engaged in what one might call organized murder by those — and it doesn’t take many —ignoring signs and walking across fragile meadows or treating the 7 square mile valley Mother Nature used glaciers to carve from granite as if it were a giant trash can.

Funny, but some of the demand for stricter public access rules for federal land doesn’t come from activists who are in Northern Nevada who appreciate the Black Rock Desert but from states where the federal government controls less than 5 percent of the land.

Uncle Sam controls 84.6 percent of the land in Nevada. The top five states after Nevada that the federal government is by far the largest land owner is Idaho, Alaska, Oregon and then California. The federal government owns 45.8 percent of California. Altogether 92 percent of the 2.27 billion acres the feds control are in 12 western states.

Had some environmentalists today been around 170 years ago there would have been no way wagon trains or even exploration of the West save for government agents or those devoted to the concept of a man-free ecological system.

Man gathers. Man communes. Man parties. Man explores.

Man also mines, spins out in off road vehicles and does highly stupid acts such as placing graffiti on ancient rock art or brazen cutting down trees in Joshua National Park.

There is a need to constantly strike balances.

It would seem Burning Man hits that chord quite well.

 Getting 80,000 people to commune in the desert and leave essentially no trace behind is a much better success story by far than what is happening in Yosemite Valley.

Burning Man should not be regulated to death.

But if Burning Man can be banished from federal land then so can any other use that treats the environment with respect whether it involves backpacking or even kayaking in high Sierra lakes.

This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Journal or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.  He can be contacted at or 209.249.3519.