AFTERBURN REPORT 2003
In the past year, the Nevada properties and especially Black Rock Station have faced the biggest challenges and undergone the most change in its history. On the ranch, what began as a depository for reusable materials had grown into something more. With the purchase of 200 acres adjacent to work ranch in 2001, we began to build a truly professional production facility. Along the way, the collection of stored materials and vehicles expanded and began to include property owned by participants and staff members. We went from storing a few dozen vehicles to over 200. Storage containers grew in number from about 8 in 2000 to nearly 40 by the end of 2003, and 2 semi-trailers increased to 15. We became host to not only the advance set-up and clean-up crews, but also staff members performing preparatory tasks, participants storing or seeking materials, artists fabricating their works, and agency representatives collaborating on desert preservation events. In order to support the activities of the ranch, we improvised with materials at hand to build the Beach Club, our combination, dining hall and meeting place, complete with kitchen, ranch office, and stage. Camps stretched the length of the property and as many as 120 guests, staff, and volunteers inhabited the property in a single day.
We had come a long way from the humble beginnings of a few trailers and vehicles. We successfully adapted to support ongoing efforts, but we had reached the outer limits of what the property could support. In responding to the emerging needs of our organization, we had not realized that we overstepped the limits of Washoe County codes, and so as 2003 began, we developed a plan to move the property into legal compliance.
The plan involved applying for permits for our activities in support of the event, such as housing workers and storing materials. We also sought permits for structures such as shade structures, while eliminating other, impermissible structures. The county allows an operation found to be in violation of code to make a good-faith effort to comply, and we were committed to full cooperation. The organization worked with county planning staff to create four special use permit applications—salvage yard, operable vehicle storage, commercial campground, and custom manufacturing—which we felt came closest to describing our unique operation within the constraining definitions of code. We soon became aware that our efforts would meet resistance from other landowners in the vicinity of the ranch, and addressing their concerns, the County added 97 stipulations to the permits. As these applications were moving forward, work began on the ranch to eliminate the Beach Club and reign in outlying camps. The Beach Club was basically a courtyard created by three mobile homes, covered with shade structures, and with a palette floor attached on one side. The mobile homes would have been nearly impossible to bring into compliance, so they were removed and ultimately dismantled. The remaining shade structures and flooring were reduced to re-usable lumber, and older materials were thrown away. The functions of the kitchen and office were moved to the ranch manager's home, and ultimately the kitchen appliances were placed in a separate trailer to accommodate the springtime crew. Camps along the fence line -- mostly staff trailers, small shade structures, and some materials -- were cleaned up and removed to diminish the profile of the ranch as viewed from Rte 34.
This work was accomplished by early March, as our permits reached the Washoe County Planning Commission for consideration. The neighbors' group had organized in opposition of these permits, and their public comments cited concerns such as fire danger, inappropriate use of the property, messy appearance, and inadequate water resources, while supporters testified to our model clean-up record at the event site and contributions to the community. Representatives from various county departments also told of our cooperation in improving our operation and rebutted many of the neighbors' concerns. Letters and petitions opposing our development were matched with our own petition and many letters of support from other local residents. This mixed testimony prompted the commission to refrain from making a decision until they could come out and see the ranch for themselves.
In the interim shade structures at the shop were removed, the vehicle yard was cleaned, and several more fire extinguishers were placed around the shop in work areas. The Planning Commission had their unprecedented visit at the end of March, and some sheriffs and opposed neighbors tagged along. One commissioner noted that the materials were well organized, but many junk cars and unusable materials remained. The sheriffs took it upon themselves to demonstrate that the access road, Jackson Lane, was wide enough to accommodate two vehicles side-by-side, contrary to assertions by the opposition. When the commission met again in early April, one commissioner noted that during the entire 3-hour visit, she had seen no traffic on the road. The Planning Commission voted to approve the permits, but an eleventh-hour appeal by the opposition group moved the judgment to the highest county authority, the Washoe County Board of Commissioners.
Despite the political battle extending to the commissioners, projects never ceased to move forward. The rows of materials on the ranch were combed over to remove junk, vehicles were identified for removal either by their private owners or by the crew, and other normal functions continued in preparation for the event. Letters went out notifying participants that they could no longer store their vehicles and materials on the ranch after the event. Volunteers started to visit the ranch in support of these projects earlier than in years past, and the ranch skeleton crew was streamlined. A special project was launched on Easter weekend to clean up Doobie Lane, a stretch of unpaved road just outside Gerlach lined with art installations and many carved rocks. At the same time, spring clean up of the playa prepared for an early May BLM inspection that would ensure granting of the permit for the event.
When the matter of our four special use permits came before the Board of Commissioners, the picture painted by our opposition contrasted completely with that of the many vendors, officials, participants, and citizens who supported our efforts. Throughout the process, we learned that we had failed to create and maintain good communication with many of our neighbors, and also that the organized neighbors' group was wielding considerable political power. Also, we realized that the approach we had undertaken with the blessing and assistance of county staff had grown clumsy, and indeed one of the activities covered by our permits, commercial campground, was already allowed by code. Ultimately, the appeal of our permits was accepted, which meant that our permits were denied. Although this decision was quite a blow, we knew that the final outcome was yet to be determined.
Clean up on the ranch continued with the removal of ruined, abandoned materials such as PVC pipe, lumber, carpet, bicycles, and shade cloth. Several junk cars and other debris such as junk metal, old appliances, and abandoned art was removed either to a salvage yard or to a metal recycling facility. The water from the ranch well was tested and received a high quality rating, and we applied for a commercial well designation with the Nevada Water Authority, which had already proclaimed our projected water use "a drop in the bucket" compared to neighboring operations. We began painting several trailers in a "desert camouflage" motif to further reduce their visibility from a distance. A film was produced to demonstrate all of our progress and illustrate the functions of the ranch to the county commissioners, who were not able to view the facility in person. On the political front, we took steps to delay enforcement action from the county, since we were then in technical violation of the law. A lawsuit against the county was prepared to recover expenses and lost income in the event that we had to relocate the project, and alternative sites were researched and visited. Although such avenues were explored, we remained committed to finding a way to remain in our home in the Black Rock Desert. We also were determined not to let the permit issues interfere with event pre-production, which was quickly advancing.
Several projects moved forward on the ranch to prepare for the event. The semi-trailer for the on-playa staff commissary was emptied, then built out with cleanable surfaces and wired for electricity so it could serve as a prep room at the event. For the ranch commissary, we decided to set up the large tent used for the Center Camp REMSA medical clinic at the event. Some pieces had to be repaired and a palette floor built to reduce dust accumulation. A kitchen trailer separate from the one used at the event was rented, appropriate fire permits for the tent were issued, and the entire operation received approval from the Washoe County Health Department. For the first time ever, the set up crew commissary was set up on the 200-acre Black Rock Station property, while most camping remained on the 80-acre leased parcel, where clean up was commencing. Crew camps were limited to a smaller area than before, and people were encouraged to walk or ride bicycles to diminish traffic on the ranch. A semi-trailer was purchased for use as the DPW Dispatch office and built out with internal rooms and electricity. Another semi-trailer was provided for the Man crew and outfitted with braces for the arms and legs. The Man was built in a single week before the July 4 holiday. The shade crew prefabricated shade structures, and structures built on the ranch conformed with standards set by the fire department. Several shorter semi-trailers were purchased to begin storing various materials such as cones and delineators, food donations, and fence materials. The office buildings built by DPW in previous years were painted and refurbished for use by various departments at the event. Shipping containers were assigned new tracking numbers to simplify recognition by the transportation crew, and several more were purchased to meet growing demand. A group of DPW project managers were trained, including certification in adult CPR and first aid, and EMT presence on the ranch was increased to attend to minor injuries. Several departments such as the Café, BMIR, Lamplighters, and Recycle Camp sent representatives to inventory and prepare their materials for transport. We succeeded in our goal of performing these necessary activities with reduced numbers of people.
During the event, the use of Black Rock Station drops to virtually nil. Although some auto shop and caretaker activities continue, by the time the gate opens, the crews have moved to the desert to build Black Rock City. At this point, other properties in Nevada take on important roles. The Gerlach office is staffed from the early spring until the fall to perform crucial activities such as making purchases, accepting deliveries, facilitating communication, and selling merchandise. The facility also provides project managers with resources such as telephones and internet access. The leased property at Garrett Ranch, aka Frog Pond, again legally provided millions of gallons of water for the necessary dust abatement operations in Black Rock City. The Earth Guardians began efforts this year to eliminate non-native, destructive plant species on the Garrett Ranch property and to return native plants that help support birds and other wildlife. A fuel tank that served water trucks in 2002 was taken out of service this year and returned to the vendor. We continue to police the area year-round to repair fences and pick up garbage left by trespassers, in accordance with the owner's wishes. Meanwhile at the event, some plans hatched on the ranch reached their conclusion. Transportation went more smoothly than in prior years because of better markings and more semi-trailers. Several dumpsters of unusable lumber from the ranch were transported to the event to be burned in art projects, simultaneously clearing the ranch of debris and preserving several cords of firewood for use in the winter. Several palettes of lawn sod from theme camps were removed from the event to Gerlach, and although the grass did not take root, it will provide good mulch for planting.
Although time may seem to stop in Black Rock City, the work to come into compliance and cooperate with Washoe County continued in earnest. Commissioner Bonnie Weber, who represents the district in which the ranch and Gerlach are located, visited the ranch and the event in order to gather her own first-hand impressions. An article by the New York Times researched and published during the event explored the issues of the ranch from the point of view of diminishing resources allowed to artist groups. The manager of Black Rock Station was appointed to the local citizens' advisory board, which serves to communicate the community's concerns to the Board of Commissioners and which had been comprised mostly of opposition neighbors. Immediately after the event, a meeting of Burning Man staff and the opposition group was held with Commissioners Jim Shaw and Bonnie Weber present to facilitate communication and develop responses to the neighbors' concerns. This meeting successfully laid the groundwork for the future and opened lines of communication that had become stunted by the months of adversity. Around this time, the Nevada Water Authority approved our application for an increased water allotment. A bit later, some of the clean-up crew were hired to build a structure by a neighbor who had been in the opposition group. Another neighbor collaborated with staff to create a ranch development plan that alleviated his concerns.
As another successful event came to a close and the site was restored to pristine condition, clean-up crews also continued to remove accumulated materials from the ranch property and to recover and organize usable materials. Shipping containers returning from the event were placed in a large rectangle, creating a visual block for the storage yard within. Participants who had stored vehicles or travel trailers on the ranch in the past took them away after the event, and large art cars such as La Contessa and Draka were removed to another property. The remaining staff-owned trailers and vehicles were placed in the new storage yard. The last piles of lumber that had accumulated from past productions were sorted and removed. Much of the reusable lumber was donated to Gerlach residents for projects such as the Empire Haunted House and roof repairs at the Miner's Club. The last outlying materials from past camps were removed so over 70% of the ground was completely cleared, then a native seed mix was planted in these areas. When Washoe County code enforcement officers visited the ranch in late December, they were pleased and surprised to see how much progress had been made. Work on the ranch still continues throughout the winter, as we plant seed, recycle scrap metal, maintain vehicles and equipment, and compile inventories. In Gerlach, phone and computer systems are being improved and building maintenance tasks performed.
The storage yard created on the work ranch is still not the last step — it serves only to consolidate storage and helps to model how much space will be required in the final permitted storage area on Black Rock Station. A new master plan has been created that will legitimize the activities of the ranch and alleviate some of the pressures of its multiple combined uses by moving crew housing to Gerlach. We have applied for new special use permits — general industrial limited and automotive repair — that accurately describe our vital operations on the ranch. These permits will entail building a new structure for use as the auto shop, leaving our existing shop structure for carpentry uses. The fuel depot will be relocated between the two structures, and spill containment measures will be installed. Permanent canopy structures will be erected alongside the existing shop structure to shade the metal working areas. A new storage yard with a sight-obscuring fence will be built, with landscaping along the length of the fence and a landscaped park where workers can relax while eating lunch or on break. Ribbon foundations will be put in for shipping containers, which will be painted and tied down to comply as designated storage units. We will drill our new commercial well and put the finishing touches on our 60,000-gallon, fire-dedicated water storage. Two mobile homes will be installed and connected to power, water, and a new septic system. The smaller building will serve as the ranch manager's residence, while the larger one will be used for crew housing, office, and communal functions. Later this year, we will apply for additional permits to allow storage of the many vehicles used to produce the event.
The past year presented us with some new challenges to our operations at Black Rock Station and the Nevada properties, but we have come a long way toward adapting the properties to conform to permissible uses. One by one, we have met reasonable concerns about our operations with viable solutions. The course we have set goes the farthest to realize our long-term goals for the Nevada properties, and the restructuring has enabled us to re-think how we produce Black Rock City. Future production will be safer and more organized, with fewer people needed to accomplish the work. Black Rock Station will have better resources to support the maintenance of fleet vehicles, construction of structures and furnishings for the event, and storage of the materials and equipment required to build Black Rock City. Perhaps most important of all, we have learned how to better communicate with the community, whether in Gerlach or the Hualapai Valley, in order to consider their concerns, support their needs, and mitigate the impact of our project on their day-to-day lives.
Matthew Ebert aka Metric