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.


They still have this thing?

Posted by Guest on Jun. 12, 2012 @ 4:51 pm

Burning Man will probably never die as long as there a rich and vibrant community surrounding it. (Drink!) There. I said it. Have a happy burn.

Posted by DaBomb on Jun. 12, 2012 @ 6:23 pm

...what nasty comments! Y'all are a bunch of haters!
If you don't like it then don't go. No one will miss you.

This will be my 18th straight year out there and yes, of course it has changed drastically since my first year in '95 when there were only about 2,800 people... but it's still absolutely amazing every year!

Burning Man is what you make of it just like everything else in life... such as this comment thread for example. Many of you have made this comment thread ugly which is actually just a reflection of your own ugly perspective rather than any real truth.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 12, 2012 @ 6:31 pm

I totally agree with you. This will be my 13th year straight. I LOVE our community. I think it got even better when they stopped selling tickets at the gate, but my experienc has always been great. I am 60 years old. I am not some whacked out, hippie/yuppie druggie. I don't do drugs. You don't have to to have a FANTASTIC time there. I think the people who comment so negatively about the event, don't know what they are talking about. If they do go, why??? It obviously is not for them. Burning Man is what you make of it. There are all ages and people of VERY diverse backgrounds who participate. But, it isn't for everyone. And that is OK. It doesn't have to be. But it is for me. And I can't wait to get home.

Posted by JustGwen on Jun. 12, 2012 @ 7:09 pm

...what nasty comments! Y'all are a bunch of haters!
If you don't like it then don't go. No one will miss you.

This will be my 18th straight year out there and yes, of course it has changed drastically since my first year in '95 when there were only about 2,800 people... but it's still absolutely amazing every year!

Burning Man is what you make of it just like everything else in life... such as this comment thread for example. Many of you have made this comment thread ugly which is actually just a reflection of your own ugly perspective rather than any real truth.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 12, 2012 @ 6:33 pm

We thought Burning Man was too big at 35K, so the recent population increases are a real turn off. In general, the art at Burning Man declined quite a bit during the six year period that we went. The vandalism and theft from several of our friend's art installations made it hard to want to go back. The final straw was our horrible treatment and exploitation by a pseudo artist who tried to con us into doing their entire project. This person then reacted badly when we walked away from the project. Yes, we had some amazing times at Burning Man but the expense and effort of the event turned out to be too much in the end. After traveling instead of going to Burning Man we realized that we enjoyed having a real vacation rather than a Burning Man experience. We do encourage people to check out Burning Man. It's still a very unique event!

Posted by Guest on Jun. 12, 2012 @ 8:00 pm

LMAO dear gods, sounds like we were on the same crew. "pseudo artist" indeed! May the Playa never again allow them in Black Rock City, or any other Burner event for that matter. Yes folks I endorse certain kinds of exclusion when it involves people who only take from others.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 12, 2012 @ 11:45 pm

WOW!! 60 years old and you have still have not grown up.
Dude! and I hate that word after Woodstock it was over!
Buy an RV drink some Krugs celebrate life

Posted by Burning Man is dead just a freak show for "wannabes" on Jun. 12, 2012 @ 8:01 pm

Go home and volunteer where you "live" first before trashing the Playa and sucking up to the BMOG

Posted by BM DPW,volunteers are "Slaves" to BMORG brainwashing lol.. on Jun. 12, 2012 @ 8:10 pm

BMORG should share some of the millions by paying us a little more and offer us a better health plan.
We work hard for our $$$ out in the sun,wind and dust and we must work with handicapped,and mentally challanged "volunteers" who are impaired most of time and want to party always.

Posted by BMORG needs to pay us at DPW more $$$ on Jun. 12, 2012 @ 8:25 pm

No one loves to party more than the handicapped and the mentally challenged, you're right. In fact, their non-stop partying is unraveling the very fabric of society. I suggest we begin to rein them in by banning Slayer t-shirts on the playa. Down the road, we'll build institutions to house them, but let's try the Slayer thing first.

Posted by Chromefields on Jun. 13, 2012 @ 6:33 am

A "Cultural Movement?" This is a business. An event promotion company to be precise. If it were about social change, make it free. Let's see how that goes.

They have two large PR issues. One is the way they treat their 'guests'. The paying customers that support them and all the ancillary income that they bring to one of the poorest areas of Nevada every year. By choosing to enact the lottery this year, they bent their hats to problem number two: Radical EXCLUSION. They purposefully, with clear determination, planning and forethought intentionally alienated their core market, volunteer base, and became the laughing stock of festivals while simultaneously and persistently panning in the media that they are a 'community' and that their customers will 'figure it out.'

...and if you go to Burning Man to see DJ's? Do us all a favor and don't go. Our dance camps are just fine without brand names, as they have always been.

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

"Our dance camps are just fine"

which BM dance camps are just fine? have you not figured out yet that your participation is de facto cooperation with the corporation?

you had me until, "our".

Posted by Guest on Jun. 14, 2012 @ 10:32 pm

when ? selecting ? a ? the ? is

Posted by ekhsrlhkz on Jun. 14, 2013 @ 6:16 pm