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Feds to Festival: Give Us Ice Cream and Air Conditioning

Burning Man 2014 Burning Man 2014 Flickr user Gwen Schroeder

Burning Man, the annual no-holds-barred festival of freedom and artistic expression in the Nevada desert, has a rather interesting relationship with government, and the federal government in particular. And that relationship has gotten a lot more interesting in the past few days.

Burning Man thrives on an ethos of self-governance, but the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management has, throughout the event’s history, played a rather substantial role in issuing and enforcing regulations regarding its use of federal lands. This year, BLM officials have apparently decided that they need some creature comforts in order to effectively fulfill their obligations in overseeing Burning Man’s festivities in such a remote location.

Last week, the Reno Gazette-Journal reported that BLM officials had demanded that Burning Man organizers construct a separate compound for 160 agency staffers for the duration of the event. And not just any kind of compound, but one with amenities including air conditioning, refrigerators, couches and flush toilets. Burning Man organizers said building and operating such a facility would cost about $1 million.

Part of the cost would go to cover BLM’s rather extensive list of meal and snack requirements. These include, but are not limited to, Froot Loops cereal, Chobani Greek yogurt, Hot Pockets, M&Ms (although apparently Burning Man organizers don’t have to remove the brown ones), Popsicles and ice cream sandwiches.

BLM officials say the facility and the refreshments are similar to those provided by the U.S. military to troops deploying to Afghanistan. They also dispute Burning Man’s cost estimates for setting up and operating the compound, calling them “robustly exaggerated.”

"A lot of folks think we're like participants in that we are out there to enjoy the event and party," Gene Seidlitz, the bureau's Winnemucca district manager, told the Gazette-Journal. "But my staff and I have to be rested, well-nourished and accommodated to the bare minimum so we can ensure health, security and safety at the event."

About 70,000 people attend Burning Man each year, and BLM controls the permits for the festival.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., isn’t buying BLM’s argument about the necessity of setting up an air-conditioned retreat for agency staffers. On Friday, Roll Call’s Jason Dick reported that Reid had sent a letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell saying that BLM officials need to suck it up and get used to living in the great outdoors during the event.

“Part of Burning Man’s philosophy is self-reliance, and living with the elements is part of the experience,” he wrote. “Flush toilets and laundry facilities can be found about ten miles away in Gerlach, Nevada, if BLM’s employees need such amenities.”

On Monday, BLM Deputy Director Steve Ellis issued a statement saying the agency would "take a fresh look at the initial proposals for food and facilities at the event." 

Photo by Flickr user Gwen Schroeder

Tom Shoop is vice president and editor in chief at Government Executive Media Group, where he oversees both print and online editorial operations. He started as associate editor of Government Executive magazine in 1989; launched the company’s flagship website, GovExec.com, in 1996; and was named editor in chief in 2007.

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