By Ray Hagar, Nevada Newsmakers
(Editor’s note: Burning Man’s Marnee Benson appeared on Nevada Newsmakers in June. We are running this story now to coincide with the return of the official festival this week in the Black Rock Desert.)
Marnee Benson attended her first Burning Man — the world-famous, permissive, counter-culture arts festival on the dusty playa of the Black Rock desert — more than two decades ago.
She thought she’d just be hanging out with friends and seeing some cool art on her first visit. But it was so much more than that, she said during a June interview on Nevada Newsmakers.
“It was such a special place, with such a broad landscape and interactions from people around the world,” she told host Sam Shad. “It was all day and night and very inclusive, warm and fun.”
Now, Benson finds herself as Burning Man’s director of government affairs, a button-down job that’s necessary to keep Burning Man’s free-spirit alive and thriving.
“Now, we work with 16 or 17 different agencies each year for our permitting and we now have an airport, so I work with the FAA and NDOT Aviation,” Benson said. “And we have a hospital, so we work with state agencies with the hospital.
The complexities of dealing with government agencies to keep the festival alive have been daunting. The event returns this year after organizers cancelled it for the past two years due to the pandemic. An alternative Burning Man festival was held last year, without the official organization, drew about 15,000 and was disorganized, according to reports.
“We have law enforcement, the Bureau of Land Management,” she said. “We also work with the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe because we know our event has impact. So we want to be good partners and ensure we are supporting our agencies in terms of the higher level of public safety that they provide.
“We also work with multiple law enforcement agencies and federal agencies, two different county commissions and other public health and safety entities,” she said.
About 25,000 people attended Burning Man in Benson’s first visit 21 years ago. Now, the festival is expected to attract three times that number to the playa near Gerlach this week.
“Now we have 80,000 people coming in from 5,500 different cities around the world,” Benson said. “And through years of working together with our agencies and elected officials and rural or conservative counties to find commonalities, I think we are in a better place. We’ve built trust and much better systems and I think it shows.”
The festival, however, has clashed with some conservative leaders in rural Nevada and Washoe County from the get-go, Benson said.
“The first time Burning Man took place in Nevada was 1991 and it was a small group of people who were looking to disrupt the system,” Benson said. “When Burning Man first arrived in Washoe County and Pershing County, that was a real collision of values.
Since then, Burning Man has tried to be better neighbors, Benson said.
“What has happened over the years is that we’ve learned a lot,” she added. “In those early days, I don’t think we were the best citizens of Washoe County. We came in and had goals about the type of event and interactions we wanted to have but did not know really how to navigate through public affairs and government relations. And through trial and error, making mistakes and really focusing on our communication and relationship building and being good neighbors, that has changed over the years, sometimes out of necessity.”
Now, governments and agencies embrace Burning Man for economic reasons, Benson said.
“We bring in $75 million of direct economic impact just to this area and so as that has happened, people have understood we bring positive benefits,” Benson said.
“Entrepreneurs and governments have latched on and have really been welcoming,” Benson said. “You see Burning Man art all over the place here in Reno.”
Burning Man also marks the biggest event of the year for the Reno-Tahoe International Airport, with this year’s festival expected to attract about 25,000 airline passengers, according to reports. This year, the Reno airport is also displaying a Burning Man art exhibit to welcome visitors.
“We work collaboratively with many of those agencies who see our work as being important and see our organization as being very competent,” she said. “Our expertise really comes into play when we build an ephemeral city out in the middle of nowhere where there are no other resources and the natural environment is intrinsically dangerous.”
Burning Man, however, still has its gripes with government.
“We often times don’t see eye to eye with government agencies,” Benson said. “We think we are over-regulated, we think we are charged too much …”
Benson recalled that seven years ago, the BLM was the subject of a government-overreach story about Burning Man that was picked up across the nation.
“In 2015, the federal government (BLM) was caught trying to require we build them luxury accommodations,” she said. “They were asking us to provide them with porcelain toilets and 24-hour access to ice cream. That was the headline, not only in Nevada, but nationally.
“I think it was call ‘choco-taco gate’ or something and that really exposed a problem in the system where they were using us to provide more than what was needed to administer our permit,” Benson said. “And they improved after that significantly.”
The BLM’s demands included special items for breakfast, lunch and dinner, food to be available between meals, plus the 24-hour ice cream availability, according to the Reno Gazette-Journal.
Burning Man means more work for the Pershing County Sheriff’s Office, which arrested 60 festival-goers in 2019, mostly for drug-related charges, according to reports. When Pershing County Sheriff Jerry Allen was elected in 2015, he vowed to increase enforcement in the Black Rock Desert during the event, according to Forbes.
Yet Benson insisted the Burning Man festival has many fans in Pershing County.
“Some in Pershing County do love us,” she said. “One of the programs I run is our external relations and we bring the Pershing County seniors out for a tour of Black Rock City every year. And we love having them out there and when you are told by a 95-year-old grandmother that she’s having the most fun evening of her life, that’s really a game changer.”