Because of this website, Arcadia Publishing contacted me about doing a book about the desert. My book, "Images of America: Black Rock Desert," was released on November 11, 2013. Proceeds from the book benefit the Gerlach Seniors Center.
Nick Walden wrote an article about me for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, "From Cotati to the Nevada Desert." (August 2, 2013) The article covers the dunes, the appeal and the book.
July, 2012 - I went ahead and appealed the permit. On May 13, IBLA 2012-225 denied the permit.
"Burning Man is a Leave No Trace Event, and we seek not only to minimize our impact in the desert but also to understand our impact beyond its boundaries. The links to the right will guide you through preparing for your Burning Man experience, and will introduce some groups who are dedicated to addressing environmental issues in Black Rock City and beyond."
and they have an Environmental Statement that talks about using non-fossil fuels. However, despite the assertion that the organization seeks to "minimize our impact in the desert", the statement does not address the impact of the event on the local environment.
Burning Man, and all of us who love and foster the event, have a huge problem:
We are destroying the desert
The problem is that 53,963 (2011) attendees stir up a lot of dust, which gets blown around the desert and is changing the Black Rock Desert from one of the World's flattest places—suitable for the 1997 ThrustSSC land speed record—to a dune field.
I've been going to the Black Rock Desert since 1989. During the first few years, if the desert was dry, then it was flat and hard. Land sailing was easy, it was possible to bicycle with your eyes closed.
The first time I saw large incidental dunes was just after the 1997 ThrustSSC broke the sound barrier. These dunes were located near the 3 mile entrance, where the temporary buildings to support both land speed record efforts. The dunes were probably 6" high and maybe 12 feet long.
Burning Man is big on Leave No Trace, yet even today, scars from two of the late 90's burns near the 3 mile entrance persist in Google Maps? Why is that? Yahoo maps has these two scars as well.
In April, 2000, the BLM sent email (Bilbo2000) about the "playa serpents".
The source material for the dunes is most likely Burning Man (Young2000).
The dust storms at Burning Man have been getting worse over the years.
In addition, severe dust storms have been happening earlier and earlier during the week of Burning Man. In 2000, a severe dust storm occurred on Sunday, after the burn. In 2007, the worst dust storm was on Wednesday during Burning Man. In 2008, there was a severe dust storm on Monday. These storms occur when wind picks up sand disturbed by users of the playa. The storms have been occurring earlier because the desert has not had time to recover, and the number of people has increased.
The dust from Burning Man is affecting areas outside of the Burning Man site.
Land sailing has been strongly negatively impacted by the dunes. At first, they were fun. Now, there is very little clear area on which to sail. The land sailing event, which has been held annually for many years on the Black Rock desert was held on the Alvord Desert in 2002. Bassano2002
In October, 2006 and October 2007, I was camped downwind of the Burning Man site. The amount of dust blowing from the site was immense. Each year, there was a wall of dust blowing downwind, where at one location, the air would be fairly clear, yet walking 50 feet would put one inside a maelstrom of dust. In past years, Burning Man has dragged the desert with chains in an effort to smooth over the site. All this does is effectively plow up the desert and allow wind to move the dust and sand away from the site. This means that the site looks ok, but north and south of the site is a labyrinth of dunes.
Desert Pavement is a type of desert surface that consists of pebbles that are tightly packed together, possibly because the sand separating the pebbles has been removed. In the northeast arm of the Black Rock Desert, there is fresh sand being deposited on desert pavement. The sad thing is that because of the degree of desert varnish on the desert pavement, the desert pavement appears quite old, possibly hundreds or even thousands of years old.
The dunes have become worse and worse. At Burning Man 2008, a line of dunes ran East-West just south of the 3:00 road, corresponding with the 2007 trash fence. (Sarriugarte2008). The dunes were large enough that art cars had to detour. Bicycling was very difficult, cyclists were limited to traveling on the tire tracks of cars. In effect, Burning Man has already lost use of the desert: in 2008, bicyclists were required to follow roads. Two dry years in 2010 and 2011 have made for a better surface, but the number of attendees has increased. The 2007 trash fence dune was present in 2008 through 2011, presumably it was removed during the 2011 cleanup. It is likely that the next dry year (2012?) will result in massive dust production that will not be washed away.Laura Levy's "Burning Thoughts 2012" provides an good overview of the dunes and monitoring issues.
Below is a chronologically ordered list of references concerning the Black Rock Desert dunes. The first few references are photos of the desert that are interesting in that there are no dunes present.
"The Winning of Barbara Worth" is filmed on the Black Rock Desert.
Rough, no dunes
(Carlton E. Haviland)
David Loomis' book "Combat zoning: military land-use planning in Nevada" discusses the evolution of the Black Rock Desert Gunnery Range. It appears that the range was in use in 1942, cancelled in 1943 and reinstated in 1944. The range was an aerial gunnery range, "no bombs, rockets or explosives were to be used". During the time the range was in operation, portions of the Black Rock Desert were closed to public use, which would have greatly reduced any dunes.
The faux-history web page Military and
Postwar Occupation includes a more detailed timeline that was probably used to update the Black Rock Desert Wikipedia page.
Russell Elliot's book "The History of Nevada" has an undated picture of the Black Rock Desert on page 211 that looks to be from the 1940's.
In the 1950's, the Black Rock Desert was part of the Lovelock North Gunnery Range. The "Lovelock North Gunnery Range Inventory Project Report" says:
Seven wild horses running on the Black Rock Desert" was taken in the 1950's. However, this might be Bluewing, Adobe, or Misfits Flat (near Dayton), not the Black Rock Desert. Laura Levy suggests it might be the "western edge of the Kumiva Flat looking back at the SE corner of that playa toward Juniper Pass"
Nell Murbarger, Desert Magazine, "On Black Rock Desert Trails", July, 1951, p15-20:
Nell Murbarger, Desert Magazine, "Lost Hardin Silver, Mystery or Hoax?", April, 1955, p9-12 has a photo of the norther part of the Black Rock Desert, though the photo does not show the playa surface.
Desert Magazine, "Navy Land Grab in Nevada's Black Rock Country"
The faux-history web page Military and
Postwar Occupation includes the photo below with the description "In
1942, the Army Air Corps established a temporary tent city in
support of operations in the Black Rock Desert." However, the bottom of
the page says "Images ... Occupation of BRC by military - 1956". Mike Morgan used Tin Eye to find another version that is titiled "8-Ottoman Red Crescent 1915-1917 Beersheba". Mike points out that a crescent is visible on the flag, so unless the US Army Air Corps was having a dress-up day, this photo is not likely to be of the Black Rock Desert.
not filmed on the Black Rock Desert.
I contacted Dr. Neal in July, 2010 and he stated that the photo was from 1963-1964 as the man in the photo transferred from Dr. Neal's employ in 1964. The photo appeared in an October, 1970 article.
The reference is from the June 2006 BLM Environmental Assesment below.
Neal, James T., 1970. Playa Surface Features as Indicators of Environment, Proc. 1970 Playa Lake Symposium, Texas Tech Univ.
What's interesting here is that archive.org shows http://www.lib.ttu.edu as being removed on April 16, 2006, or possibly well before the Burning Man EA below was published in July, 2006 Happily, archive.org does have a cache of the site at
BlackRockDesert1926-1989.kmz is a Google Earth file that uses Google Earth's photo capability to determine roughly where the photo was taken. Interestingly, the Neal 1963-64 photo was taking 4 or 5 years before Heizer's land art piece was created but was in a location within 900 meters of Heizer's piece. Formerly, I thought that the photo was taken in 1970 and the dunes could have been caused by Heizer's work, but this is not possible. The Neal 1963-64 photo is near a very busy entrance to the playa. In the kmz file, the Neal 1963-64 photo does not precisely match the horizon, this could be because of scaling artifacts from the printing process in the original publication or in the scanning process.
The Dunes are much worse now. It is great that there is a picture from 1963-64 showing that this is not a new process. What is different is that there are many more dunes that are much larger. See http://www.flickr.com/search/?q=Burning+Man+dunes&m=text
See also Life magazine for a photo.
See also "After 'Dissipate'" for other resources.
"In 1969, Heizer and De Maria would play out their fantasies of Wild West virility in De Maria's twenty-nine-minute film "Hard Core", a slow, extremely spare drama on the Black Rock Desert, north of Reno, Nevada. Against ponderous soundtrack rhythms of cattle grunting, De Maria's drumming and ocean waves crashing (there is no dialog), the camera makes seven slow 360 pans of the austere landscapes horizontally bisected into expanses of blue sky above a bleached desert. Heizer wears a white cowboy hat. De Maria a black one, each pulled low over the forehead. As in the immensely popular 1966 western movie Clint Eastwood, "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," the camera level is low and looks up at the men's gun holsters from behind right. As they finger pistols decorated with old-fashioned arabesque carvings, the sonorous rhythm is suddenly punctuated by a shootout between them. Then to the roar of wind, the two "hard core" mavericks saunter away, magically unharmed"De Maria's composition "Ocean Music", is available. De Maria went on to create The Lightening Field in New Mexico. Below is photo from De Maria titled "Hard Core":
Below are a three frames from Hard Core via Clara Schulmann's Le Silo:
I'd like to buy a copy of Walter De Maria's Hard Core, please contact me at cxbrooks at gmail dot com if you know how I could obtain Hard Core.
Black Rock Desert Gunnery Range era. Rumor has it that the signs were cut down in the late '90's or early '00's by a motorcycle group for safety reasons.
(Courtesy John Bogard, Planet X)
Late 80's photographs by Richard Misrach
Far From Home filmed on the Black Rock Desert.
There are a few scenes at the end of Part 5 of Far From Home that show the desert and have no dunes.
Friends of the Black Rock website has this picture.
"Black Rock Desert Playa with large desiccation polygons;
view northeast, Black Rock Range on left, 20 Miles Distant, 8/17/95. Delores Cates photo." Spencer Tunick's photo "Nevada Desert 1997." I'm not yet sure exactly where this photo was taken, it might be Hualapai, which is where Burning Man 1997 was held.
On October 15, 1997 ThrustSSC breaks the speed of sound at Black Rock Desert.
Two undated photos from the ThrustSSC site:
Burning Man 1998 occurred, roads are still visible in Google Maps for either 1998 or 1999:
View Larger Map
The Google Earth Placemark for Burning Man 1998 indicates the date of the image in the lower left. In October, 2009, Google earth indicated the image was taken on May 25, 2006. Google Earth's View -> Historical Imagery can be used to obtain the image from September 17, 2003 that shows two sets of roads, one from 1998 and one from 1999. The Burning Man website says that 1998 was the first year that a drag was used to smooth the playa.
These undated photos are associated with the "Lovelock A Inventory Project Report", which mentions an August 4, 1999 site visit.
From Mike_Bilbo@nv.blm.gov Mon Apr 17 17:58:39 2000
June 27: Porsche brings out a number of cars for the press. See "The Ten Best Cars Larry Has Ever Driven", which puts the date at June 27. A July 22, 2000 Toronto Star article has no date. The October 10, 2000 NY Times article "Behind the Wheel/Porsche 911 Turbo; Exploring the need for Speed: 175 m.p.h and a Cloud of Dust" covers the event and says "In the unforgiving heat of July".
The photo has no obvious dunes, but who would race a $120K automobile at 175 mph over dunes? More photos and placing this photo using Google Earth would be useful.
July 31: "Preliminary Analysis of Playa Bedforms of the Black Rock Desert, Washoe County, Nevada"
August 16: BLM site: Black Rock Desert Travel Advisory (with photos)
Page dated as being last updated on July 17, 2001. Archive.org has this page as first appearing on August 16, 2000.
August 24: www.portofentry.org website about playa conditions at the Burning Man airport:
Philippe Glade's 2011 book "Black Rock City, NV: The Ephemeral Architecture of Burning Man" has a photo from 2001:
Playa Works: The Myth of the Empty
page 174 says:
The reference to 1970 is likely Neal1970 above.
August 7: "August 7, 2002 - The Black Rock Desert. Mel and Coyote laying out lines for the surveying of Black Rock City, the location where Burning Man takes place every year leading up to Labor Day."
September 17-19: Ian [Kluft's] Pictures from CSXT's Space Shot 2002 (photos). Note that there are more serpents
September 21: Portland State Aerospace Society visit. Is that a dune in the upper center?
Todo: find more photos of dunes from these years. The primary focus of this site is to find photos of dunes before 2000, but more photos after 2000 would be useful.
January 25: Jeff DeLong, "Web campaign fires on Burning Man," Reno Gazette-Journal
Cooper is "David Cooper, chief of the BLM's Black Rock Desert unit."
The (Neal 1970) reference is discussed above.
September 27: AERO-PAC Playa Serpents
Archive.org first cached this page on 9/27/2006. The page has pictures of two incidental dunes, one of which is the same as above, the other is below.
Nevada Magazine includes this photo:
August 27: Article on the Reno Gazette Journal website
The Cooper being quoted is probably Dave Cooper, "manager of Black Rock Desert-High Rock Canyon Emigrant Trails National Conservation Area."
Other events that occur on the Black Rock Desert have at most 200 people.
September 7: Steve Fossett goes missing while "scouting dry land beds suitable for his record-breaking attempt"
If the Black Rock Desert was not in such poor shape . . .
Image from oilpunk.com.
March: Wind-powered car breaks record at Ivanpah, outside of Las Vegas
If the Black Rock Desert was not in such poor shape . . .
May: Jim Denevan does land art on the Black Rock Desert. See more photos at http://www.aiphotodesigns.com/Denevan/. I was not aware of this work until December 2009, though the piece was not noticeable by Memorial Day. In July 2009, I was up on one of the hills overlooking the playa and probably would have seen it. Interestingly, the piece is near the site of Heizer's 1968 work, "Dissipate".
Good news! The North American Eagle - World Land Speed Challenger is on the Black Rock, doing testing for a Land Speed Record. However, they describe the Black Rock: "There is considerable rubble on the surface, so defodding is necessary." This is fairly standard practice, something similar was done for ThrustSSC.
On June 6, the North American Eagle site says: "The playa will be in excellent shape for our test runs." However, in 2010, it appeared that American Eagle was negotiating with the BLM to use Diamond Valley.
Some Rights Reserved)
June: 2nd wettest June in Reno, 3rd wettest in Lovelock
June, 2009 was the third wettest June in Reno (1.52 inches) and the second wettest June in Lovelock (2.10 inches). On July 1, 2009, Weather Underground for Lovelock, NV said:
Top ten wettest junes on record for Reno
Top ten wettest junes on record for Lovelock
This might help explain North American Eagle's comment about the quality of the surface being good. On Memorial Day, I found the surface to be poor, with a loose fluffy layer in many locations that before 2000 were hard packed. The incidental dunes continue to be a hazard, these dunes were not there before 2000. The wet June helped improve the surface after Memorial Day, but the post 2000 dunes continue to be a problem.
Todo: consider finding rainfall data for other years.
September 19, 2009: National Geographic blogs about Burning Man and includes an image. Laura Levy points out that the image is probably from 2006 because the Belgian Waffle is visible. The credit says "Ikonos satellite image courtesy Geoeye.". Unfortunately, in the blog entry, Larry Harvey is quoted as saying "No roads, no buildings, no trash—as if we were never there." See below for evidence of the 2007 and 2008 Burning Man events was still visible during the 2009 event.
October, 2009: Laura Levy at http://www.spatial-ed.com/ pointed out the 2008 Burning Man Poster at http://marketplace.burningman.com/catalog.php?act=view_prod_info&id_prod=52526&i=&l=&sid=ad89fe42e52dc7997650d4a6ddaeec60 that shows the 2007 dune. Below is an image from Laura's site with the dune highlighted:
Bad enough that the 2008 image shows the 2007 trash fence, but the 2009 Burning Man gigapan images at http://gigapan.org/gigapans/fullscreen/34311/ show the 2008 roads just above the the 2009 location. How is this considered "Leave No Trace"?
Porsche ad features the Black Rock Desert. It is not clear when the footage was shot. Porsche was out on the Black Rock in 2000.
Bugatti Veyron 16.4 high speed test drive Black Rock Desert. It is unclear when this video was taken.
Ken Adams, Don Sada, "Black Rock Playa, Northwestern Nevada: Physical Processes and Aquatic Life", Desert Research Institute
The paper refers to this site, specifically Jon Sarriugarte's 2008 picture. The paper also mentions James T. Neal's 1970 photo.
The Wikipedia page showing the 2010 site shows the 2007 trash fence. Click on the link and look at the line from 5:30 to 3:00.
Kyle Harmon, via Wikipedia, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic)
June/July, 2011: The Black Rock Desert was wet enough to prevent driving straight across from 12 mile to Frog in June. However, it dried nicely in time for the July 4th weekend, though two of our party got stuck. In June, the trash fence dune was clearly visible from the Soldier Meadows Road. Overall, the surface seemed better than the previous year, though there are still plenty of obvious dunes.
August, 2011: Mark Robison's article "Fact Checker: Are serpent dunes traces of Burning Man?" appears in the Reno Gazette-Journal. I enjoyed speaking with Mark by phone, but I don't agree with his analysis. Mark writes:
"Nevada's Black Rock Desert is one of the world's unique geologic locations. Activities there are worth scrutinizing to determine if it's being harmed."
"In this case, the concerns appear unfounded."
In particular, I don't agree with some of Ken Adams' comments.
The article attributes the following to Ken:
"Two, he doesn't see vegetation growing atop the dunes, thus increasing their permanency and size, because the playa sediment is not hospitable to vegetation."
Ken has not seen vegetation, but I have. The photos below were taken in October 2011:
View Larger Map
Ken is quoted as saying:
"Three, the serpent dunes are not actually permanent."
I agree that some of the dunes move around. Dunes in large areas tend to migrate downwind. However, the 2007 Trash Fence Dune was visible in July, 2011 from the Soldier Meadow's Road. Unfortunately, I don't have a photo. The main point is: The dunes are new since 2000. I've found only one picture of dunes before 2000. Wouldn't someone have found the dunes to be interesting enough to photograph? The dunes are new, and whether they move around or not besides the point.
Doing a survey of the dunes would be of interest.
Comparing the state of the Black Rock Desert Playa with the state of other playas, such as Bluewing and Adobe would be of interest.
I'd like to get a copy of De Maria's Hard Core.
The dunes were first documented in 1963-64. Other than the 1963-64 photo, no other photos from 1926-1999 have shown the particular type of dunes shown in the 1963-64 photo.
In 2000, the dunes appeared in large numbers have been getting much larger and more numerous over time.
Burning Man needs to stop using "Leave No Trace" and use something like "Tread Lightly".
Mapping the dunes to get a baseline would help determine if the dune problem is getting worse and the orientation of the dunes with regard to the Burning Man site.
The Burning Man organization tries quite hard to reduce the impact of the event. This problem is caused by the amount of dust disturbed by the attendees. The best solution would be for Burning Man to buy land elsewhere and hold the event there. The perfect solution would be land from an open-pit mine that needed reclaiming.