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Government Relations     page 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

  "A Story of Change"

They, in turn, learned much from their experience. As public servants, they discovered that Burning Man's organizers shared their concerns. Black Rock City really was a civic enterprise. Both sides gained respect for each other, and word gradually spread that Burning Man was not what anyone had imagined during the great scare of '97.

Today, Burning Man personnel work cooperatively with representatives from agencies in two counties. We have become colleagues. Early in the following year, Larry wrote a letter pointing out to the Washoe County Commissioners that two kinds of stories get widely reported: stories of conflict and stories of change. "We've already seen a story of conflict. Let's see if we can make the future a story of change," he wrote-and this goal has come to pass.

Change takes time, however, and the experience of producing the event on private land in Washoe County led to a decision to return to the Black Rock Desert. In early 1998, the Burning Man Project submitted an application for a "special recreation permit." The astonishing reply stated that the Winnemucca District office of the BLM was "too busy" to process the application. The agency explained that a management plan then underway for the Black Rock Desert left no time to process the paperwork.

Requests for such permits are, of course, a routine part of the agency's business. Making public land available for recreation is an integral part of the BLM's mission. This response seemed much as if the post office were refusing to deliver mail because it was too busy organizing new postal routes. Experience working with the county suggested that this disagreement with government officials was not really a legal problem, nor was it primarily a struggle to obtain "rights."

It looked like politics, and immediate action was needed.

Gaining Support

Until this time, the Project had contact with the BLM only through representatives of the local Winnemucca District office. Research on the Internet yielded the names of many Nevada BLM officials, which appeared in the first Jack Rabbit Speaks announcement mobilizing political action in support of the event. Participants from around the country responded to pleas that they write letters and send emails.

This effort also created a groundswell of support in Nevada. Participants in Reno were asked to contact local politicians. The Gerlach Chamber of Commerce and several citizens of that community began to call and write their senators, their congressional representative, and the state BLM director. At the same time, we began to talk with the press. Suddenly, reporters started calling officials and asking questions.

One day a mysterious parcel appeared at our doorstep. It contained information gathered and supplied by a friend in the Winnemucca BLM field office who had secretly attended Burning Man for several years. The documents included memoranda of meetings with BLM officials and letters written by individuals and lobbying organizations urging the agency to refuse the permit application.

A second participant submitted a "Freedom of Information Act" (FOIA) request and delivered a fat dossier of all documentation monitoring Burning Man back to 1994.

Another participant who works as a private investigator turned up information on the people who wrote these letters, giving the means to apply a little counterpressure.

This investigation revealed a network of interested parties who had an ongoing relationship with the BLM. A revolving door was moving former members of the agency into positions as lobbyists for private organizations.

A story was eventually published in the Reno News and Review that questioned the propriety of some of these relationships.

What this revelation chiefly demonstrated, however, was that many of the players in this political arena constantly communicated with the agency. They had created friendships. We now decided it was time to reach inside the agency and begin to create a few relationships of our own there.

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