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As Burning Man leaves desert, growing pains continue

Organizers of the iconic "Burning Man" celebration began this week to clear the desert of any evidence that 50,000 people had just spent the past week here in a transient, art-filled, makeshift city.
/ Source: Reuters

Organizers of the iconic "Burning Man" celebration began this week to clear the desert of any evidence that 50,000 people had just spent the past week here in a transient, art-filled, makeshift city.

As the anti-establishment arts festival and survival project disappears piece by piece from the white sands of the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, participants and organizers say Burning Man -- which just had its largest week in its 25-year history -- is going through some growing pains as plans to expand its size and scope moving forward over the next year.

"When you have to be accountable and not anonymous, you change the way you act. As it's gotten bigger we've lost some of that," said Katrina Van Merter, 32, of Dallas, attending her sixth Burning Man.

The event is characterized by massive art projects and the namesake burning figure at its close, with participants heading into the desert for a week each year to build a working city from the ground up -- including an airport, a post office, and a security team -- that tries to be devoid of consumerism.

Burning Man started with an 8-foot structure burning on a beach in California at summer solstice and has morphed into a sophisticated community with year-round projects including solar energy development and a crisis response network.

Black Rock City LLC announced plans to turn its profit-making enterprise into a nonprofit this year.

Participation was capped at 50,000 people a day per a Bureau of Land Management use permit, said organizers.

Next year they're hoping to up that number, gradually adding 20,000 more people by 2016, said Burning Man communication manager Andie Grace.


But as the crowds grow, some of the long-time participants wonder if the desert gathering's principles -- including what self-styled "burners" call radical self-reliance, community, civic responsibility and an economy based on giving freely -- can take the strain of a growing population.

Others say that its growth has helped Burning Man change from a tiny party into an organization capable of innovation that can have benefits outside the "playa," the Spanish word for "beach" that burners use to refer to the site.

The Hexayurt, for example, is an easily deployable paneled shelter, created by Vinay Gupta in 2007 in honor of that year's Burning Man theme "The Green Man."

Gupta has since begun conversations with USAID about using the inexpensive structure in post-disaster areas, Grace said.

The town's crescent design, developed by Rod Garrett and founding member Harley Dubois, covers five square miles and includes 60 miles of streets, hundreds of intersections, and between two and four thousand signs created annually by a Burning Man sign shop, said Will Roger, a founder.

Roger has been asked to present to numerous audiences, including a retired Army group, about the building of what is known as Black Rock City.

Firefighters, city planners and reportedly members of Homeland Security have come to study the organizational and support structure of the complex erected to support tens of thousands of participants for a week, that then disappears as if it never existed.


But the astounding growth of Burning Man has its drawbacks, as some participants struggle to accept the changing demographics and influx of strangers into Black Rock City.

Participants point to bike thefts across the dusty playa, people coming to indulge but not to share, and a kind of close knit community feeling that is simply slipping away.

On Monday, thousands of talc-covered vehicles streamed out of the Black Rock Desert as the festival drew to a close.

Cars, trucks and RVs -- topped with dusty bikes, bright furry clothes and the makings for elaborate shelters -- snaked down the small single lane road toward civilization.

"We used to sit on the corner and wave goodbye to people as they left the playa, and tell them we'd see them again next year," said Dave Roetter, who came to the event with his 6-year-old son, Memphis. "People just don't do that anymore."

There are about 600 rangers who patrol the playa, along with several state agencies and the BLM. And despite the growing size, there is still a kind of citizen monitoring that encourages good behavior.

Accidents occur, as do arrests and numerous cases of dehydration, but nothing more than one would see in any city of this size, organizers say.

As for the missing bikes, Rogers says they're probably misplacing them. Thousands are left strewn around the basin by the event's end.

"It's still one of the safest cities in America," he said.

The demographic of Black Rock City is increasingly wealthy and older participants. A 2010 survey listed 40 percent of participants to be between the ages of 40 and 70 years old, and incomes ranging anywhere from less than $10,000 a year to over one million dollars a year. Several have groused about ticket prices that can top $360.

But there are also a greater number of families, and even very small children, many of which live together in one of Burning Man's largest camps called Kidsville.

The more, the merrier, said Sandy Lyle, 43, of San Diego.

"This year definitely feels bigger than usual, but what we do here is create community, so more people just gives us more opportunity," she said. "That's what Burning Man is all about."