Burning Man’s Web site states, “We are creating a city and adopting and modifying Leave No Trace techniques on a massive urban scale.” Among its efforts, the festival has on-site recycling and advises participants to dress fabulously but leave accessories like feathers and “large glitter” at home, so they don’t become what’s known in Burner lingo as MOOP (matter out of place, aka trash). Jamie Thompson is the pubic affairs officer for the Bureau of Land Management, which issues Burning Man’s Special Recreation Permit.
Does Burning Man live up to its “Leave No Trace” policy?
We have identified no long-term impacts, no cumulative impacts that are of any significance to the playa, as a result of Burning Man, in the 14 years now that the event has been permitted on public land. There is a very meticulous, detailed inspection conducted in the fall, usually in October, following the event, and usually in May. So the materials that end up being left on the playa come up in the freeze/thaw.
We have a methodology we use that records the exact amount of things we find, which are very tiny, little pieces of plastic or stir sticks but nothing significant. But still, if there’s a certain amount of that, that would not be within the permissible amount of the permit. So far, that’s never occurred. There are 74 stipulations in the permit this year and 16 terms and conditions, so a total of 90 requirements that they must meet in order for the permit to be reissued. And we have never had any problems with any of that.
How do you go about conducting the inspections?
We have a group of volunteers and BLM people that go out to the playa to randomly selected areas within the city itself. This is following the event, so if you don’t know where the city was, you’d never find it, but we do know that. … They pick up every single scrap of unnatural debris they may find, whether that’s a splinter of wood, a finishing nail, a bread tie, a screw … little turnings that come from drilling into plastic pipe, that sort of thing, tiny little things. And those are all collected. Then you take the average of how much area was covered. … If it exceeds a certain amount, then that’s a violation of the permit. And they haven’t even come close to doing that.
Is there any impact from human waste or gray water?
No. None of that is allowed to be dumped directly on the playa. [Burning Man] enforces those things, but we do, too, and we have people all during the event that do compliance inspections, where they arrive unannounced, and they wander through the city, and they look for things like that. Whenever they find that, they caution people. They can cite them if necessary, but it’s seldom necessary. Another thing that was raised a few years ago … was oil drips from vehicles or other fluids that may drip from vehicles that are parked out there and what happens with that. So, we now also do inspections during the event for that very thing. … Of course, you can’t look at every vehicle, but we do it by sampling certain numbers. To determine how many vehicles may be leaking something, what it is they are leaking, what is the cumulative effect of that on the whole playa area and the city during the Burning Man event. And that’s negligible. We haven’t found any evidence that petroleum products are seeping into the desert or any of that type of thing. But, it was a valid point, and we don’t ignore those things. When somebody brings up a new subject that we hadn’t thought of or the Burning Man people had not thought of, we certainly will address that.