Burning Man Appeals Probation over Crowd Size

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RENO, Nev. (AP) - Already reeling from a ticket snafu, organizers of the Burning Man counterculture festival on the Nevada desert now have another fight on their hands.

They're challenging the federal government's decision to place them on probation - and threats to pull their license - for exceeding the crowd cap last year at the largest outdoor arts festival in North America.

The Bureau of Land Management took the action against Black Rock City LLC after its offbeat art and music festival drew daily crowds of more than 53,000 on both Sept. 2 and 3 last year on the Black Rock Desert, 110 miles north of Reno.

BRC was issued a notice of noncompliance decision for exceeding the daily population cap of 50,000 allowed under terms of its special recreation permit for the weeklong celebration of radical self-expression leading up to Labor Day, said Gene Seidlitz, manager of the BLM's Winnemucca Field Office.

It's the first time Burning Man has been placed on probation since moving from San Francisco to the Nevada desert in 1990. The gathering, known for drum circles, decorated art cars, guerilla theatrics and colorful theme camps, is overseen by the BLM because it's staged on public land.

If organizers are placed on probation two straight years, Seidlitz warned, the agency may suspend or cancel Burning Man's permit and/or deny future permit applications.

He said it's important that organizers stay within the population cap because planning for law enforcement, sanitation and other services needed for the festival is based on that figure.

"It's a huge liability for BLM to ensure we have enough staff in place to do monitoring and logistical support, and for law enforcement to handle that number of participants so it's safe and secure and everyone can enjoy it," Seidlitz told The Associated Press.

BRC is appealing the agency's decision to the Interior Board of Land Appeals, which has set no time table for reaching a decision.

Burning Man spokeswoman Marian Goodell declined to comment because the matter is pending.

But in a February interview, she said organizers interpreted last year's special recreation permit to allow "in the neighborhood" of 58,000 people to be present at any one time.

"Their (BLM) comfort level is a little too conservative," Goodell said at the time. "BLM should be giving us the breathing room to be able to produce the event safely."

Seidlitz said Burning Man's probationary status does not jeopardize this year's event. His agency issues special recreation permits for the event on an annual basis, and has yet to grant one for this year.

The probationary status also will not delay the BLM's action on an environmental assessment concerning the effect of BRC's request to gradually increase the festival's daily population cap to 70,000 over the next five years, he said. A decision is expected by early June.

Organizers' request to increase the capacity comes after the festival sold out for the first time last year. The sell-out forced organizers to sell the bulk of this year's tickets through random drawings, but demand exceeded supply thanks in part to scalpers, leaving many regulars out in the cold and angry.

Goodell said organizers now hope to secure approval for the higher crowd cap. Even if the request is granted, they still would have to secure a special recreation permit each year.

"The past is the past, and now we're working hard with neighbors on a five-year permit for the future," she said. "We're really looking forward to 2012 because ... it's going to be one of the best years we've ever had."

Some festival neighbors fault BRC for exceeding last year's population cap, saying it was intentional.

"Here you have a multi-million dollar business and you can't even count," said Ron Cole, owner of the Dog Ranch near the Black Rock Desert. The gathering already is having adverse impacts on the environment and traffic, he said, and should be restricted to a crowd cap of 50,000.

Both sides have submitted written arguments over the appeal to the federal appeals board.

Charles Yordy, counsel to the board, didn't immediately return a phone call.