Burning Man organizers are disputing their $2.8 million bill from the federal government — the cost last year of hosting its popular outdoor festival in the Black Rock Desert, a national conservation area in Nevada.
The festival takes issue with the Bureau of Land Management's discretion over the weeklong counterculture celebration, claiming that the authority has been overstaffing and overcharging without fully explaining the tab, as first reported by the Reno Gazette-Journal.
"If they can't explain all of it, than we're asking for all of it back," said Ray Allen, the San Francisco-based Burning Man organization's lawyer.
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But the case also pulls back the curtain on the logistical hurdles and an evolving backstage power struggle behind an event once considered an extreme camping experience that has now achieved widespread popularity with millions in revenue.
Held in Nevada since 1990 and known for art displays, dust storms and communal living, this year's sold-out, 9-day festival in August and September is expected to draw tens of thousands of people to the scorching hot dry lake bed about 100 miles north of Reno. Burning Man — named for the large effigy burned during the festival — estimates more than $30 million in revenues from the 2015 event.
The festival's special recreation permit from BLM is the largest of its kind in the country. Burning Man agrees to and pays for a cost estimate before the event and the final accounting is provided months after, following a post-event inspection of the site.
A BLM spokesman declined to comment on the 2015 cost appeal, but its formal response submitted noted that Burning Man officials were provided with a detailed summary of costs with receipts and that "(f)ederal government agencies are obligated to recover the full cost of providing a special benefit..."
The festival is taking the issue to the Interior Department's internal appeals court, where an administrative law judge will decide on the case. This arbitration process, which could last more than a year, is commonly used for challenges related to grazing or mining uses and fees.
BLM contends that Burning Man demands year-round planning and an unparalleled response to protect the public lands given its scope and nature. The 2015 event required 84 law enforcement officers, as decided by the BLM.
The festival argues that that many officers aren't necessary given that more than a thousand Burning Man volunteers also patrol the event and that it has a clean record of taking care of the land. Burning Man said in its appeal that more than half the BLM bill was to pay for labor costs, but that the paperwork lacked specific information about the duties they actually performed.
In recent years, a more openly adversarial partnership has surfaced between the festival and the increasing number of local authorities assigned to oversee it. Allen said Burning Man has been stomaching dramatically increasing costs since 2011, when its permit was $730,000.
Meanwhile, there's been a noted crackdown on crime, which in the past has largely been drug-related. A tipping point also came last year when the BLM was forced to publicly rescinded its request for upgraded accommodations for its workers, from flushing toilets to Choco Tacos ice cream, that were derided as lavish and outlandish.
But there's also been recent BLM leadership changes in Nevada. Both the federal authority and Burning Man organizers said planning for the 2016 festival has been going smoothly. The new state director John Ruhs said BLM staffing numbers are expected to go down this year because communication between both sides are now much improved.
"We want to work collaboratively with the system," Allen said. "New BLM leadership will help us long term. We just need to get over this speed bump. We want the policies clarified moving forward."