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

Diving into Desert Politics

We needed to connect with the other users of the desert who communicated frequently with the BLM. We also realized we needed to reach beyond the district office that was refusing to process the permit application and engage in face-to-face conversations with members of the agency's state office. Far from being an impersonal bureaucracy, the Bureau of Land Management is made up of real people. Navigating this political landscape produced new friends who gave valuable advice.

For example, Project staff learned of quarterly meetings by a Resource Advisory Committee, some of whose members had written letters that opposed the permit. RAC's are meant to represent a cross-section of users across 15 different interests, including: Ranching, Mining, Wildlife, Native Americans, Wild Horses, local elected government officials, state employed government officials, Recreation, the Public at Large, Geology, and more.

A "RAC" is essentially a citizen advisory board. Its meetings are open to the public, and its members are appointed by the BLM state director for terms of 3 years. Meetings often center on issues that relate to important decisions. The upcoming RAC meeting in that district had Burning Man on its agenda. The newest member of Burning Man's board had some experience in public relations and made plans to attend.

In the meantime, a carefully crafted issue of Jack Rabbit Speaks resulted in 400 email and U.S. Mail letters requesting that the agency fulfill its responsibilities and process the permit application. Follow-up phone calls revealed that one BLM person at the state office featured in the JRS was actually a fan of the event. He spent hours on the phone explaining how the public can reach decision makers. He encouraged us to visit the Nevada state director of the BLM.

That meeting and one following with the district field manager of the Winnemucca office were not initially encouraging, but the Project stubbornly refused to accept the idea that any other place would be suitable for the event. No threats were made; instead, the Burning Man community was learning how to use the system.

The district manger had stated that his staff was "too busy." Now that same staff was spending its valuable time counting, categorizing, and responding to citizen complaints.

As public pressure continued, a Burning Man representative spent eight weeks of this campaign meeting with Washoe County Commissioners, members of Reno's print and television media, leaders of local and state arts organizations, and a member of Reno's city council. By the time the RAC met, she was ready to attend this crucial meeting with an understanding of who the players were and what interests they represented.

"All Politics is Personal"

As in the aftermath of 1997, the situation called for public confrontation of many misconceptions about the event. This case for fundamental fairness was made by an attractive, forceful, and articulate person (dressed conservatively for this occasion in an outfit that she privately referred to as her "monkey suit"). Tip O'Neil once said, "All politics is personal." Flanked on every side by public opinion, the BLM now faced the head-on charge of one very determined individual bent on forming personal relationships with everyone in the room.

The agency's resolve to ignore the permit request was weakening. At the end of two days of RAC meetings, the district field manager agreed to process the permit in exchange for a $45,000 advance toward costs to be submitted with the application and use of Project resources to develop a draft Environmental Assessment (EA). Though $200,000 of debt remained unpaid from the 1997 event, more borrowed money covered these costs, and a very knowledgeable person stepped forward to write the EA. The BLM eventually took and modified this draft for their own document.

This process was the maiden voyage of Burning Man's government relations. Fortunately, many of the relationships first forged in early 1998 still stand today, but only through attention each year to nurturing them.

The "campaign to connect" in 1998 brought an introduction to the director of Reno's thriving month-long "Art Town" event. She eventually called Burning Man in the winter of 2000 to invite a Burning Man artist to apply for a grant to participate in the celebration. Two featured artworks were eventually installed in the heart of downtown Reno.

The elected county commissioner for the Gerlach area is still in office and in 2000 visited the event for a day, as have two other county commissioners.

Although Project attendance at quarterly RAC meetings is sporadic due to the event's absence from the agenda, relationships with RAC members have been sustained. Each year, they are invited to come to the event as day visitors and receive a tour by the Mistress of Communication or members of the Media Mecca team. Many say that the event is not what they expected it to be.

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