Burning Man Fights the Feds To Save Its New Home in the Old West

The San Francisco Standard – By Maryann Jones Thompson – Mar 13, 2023

Standing a two-hour drive north of Reno and hundreds of miles from anywhere else, Gerlach is an Old West ranching and mining outpost with a dozen or so streets and a hundred or so residents. It’s known for its remote desert wilderness, hot springs, dark skies and historic position on some of the emigrant trails that moved covered wagons through the Black Rock Desert on the way to California.

Oh, and Gerlach is the gateway to Burning Man.

When 80,000 Burners overrun the tiny town on the way to the weeklong Labor Day gathering in the playa 15 miles north, Gerlachians curse the traffic and the commotion. But locals admit that over its 30 years of summer residencies, the Burning Man Project—now a major property owner and employer in the town—has proven to be a pretty good neighbor, and, importantly, an economic lifeline for one of America’s endangered small towns.

Though many old-timers will never fully accept the hordes of transplants, steampunks, artists, partiers and crew members who have transformed their high desert life, Gerlachians agree on one thing: They don’t want their town to become an industrial zone.

And that is what’s at the heart of a long-brewing, complicated fight pitting the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) against Burning Man, Gerlach residents and environmentalists who have filed a lawsuit to stop the construction of a green energy project in their backyards—literally.

“It’s really frightening what could happen to Gerlach,” said Dave Cooper, a Bureau of Land Management retiree who has lived in town since 2009 and serves on the board of Friends of Black Rock/High Rock, a conservation group that is a co-litigant in the case. “The proposed development could be larger than the town itself. And it will come right up to our outer streets—right outside our windows.”

Opponents of the geothermal energy exploration project say that the BLM approved the plan without doing a sufficient amount of research into its repercussions on Gerlach’s residents and the wilderness surrounding it.

Backers of the proposal say green projects like these are critical in order to meet the nation’s sustainable energy goals and that most disturbances caused by the development can be minimized or mitigated.

As this 21st-century Wild West showdown moves to the courts, Gerlachians have pinned their hopes on Burning Man, knowing the organization’s funds, legal firepower and media magnetism provide their best shot at preserving their desert way of life.

Since Burning Man’s late founder Larry Harvey and the earliest Burners got kicked off San Francisco’s Baker Beach in 1990, the Man has burned in the Black Rock Desert of northwest Nevada. Gerlach—pronounced “gur-lock”—is the closest town to the playa, about 20 minutes away.

“There’s a peace here that you don’t find in urban areas. I can hear my brain synapses here,” said Roger, who, like many locals, is struck by Gerlach’s reputation as the darkest town in America. “I look up and see meteors in the sky every night.”

Like many Burners who followed him, Roger “fell in love” with the high desert and the town of Gerlach, working summers as the founder of the Black Rock City Department of Public Works, the team of hundreds of workers that sets up and tears down the infrastructure for the annual gathering.

But—as portrayed in the Oscar-winning movie Nomadland—when a mine shut down in the neighboring town of Empire in 2011, Gerlach’s population dropped from around 400 to less than 200, and its economic prospects dove with it. At that point, Roger said, locals began to recognize that Burning Man was genuinely invested in the future of the community.

“This is a town of rugged individualists—they’re strong-willed because that’s what it takes to survive here,” Roger said. “It took decades, but now Burning Man is seen as a part of the Gerlach family and not seen so much as being different.”

An industrial construction project next to town would have a huge impact on Gerlach’s nascent status as a quirky tourism destination.

In October, the BLM approved the Gerlach Geothermal Energy Exploration Project to allow the drilling of up to 13 wells along the back side of town, some just a few hundred feet from backyard fences. If the subterranean water is hot and plentiful enough, additional approval would be needed for a power plant, more wells, pipelines and transmission towers to get dozens of megawatts of clean energy to the grid.

Read entire article & see town photo’s here

Posted by Teri Perticone


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