This post is part of the Consider Your Impact series
This post is part of the Consider Your Impact series
It’s easy for us to pass through Wadsworth or Nixon and not think twice, because they’re in our rearview mirror before we know it, and we’re off to the Burn. But for the people who live in those communities, forced to contend with a seemingly non-stop stream of people — Burners, staff, vendors, Law Enforcement, etc. — flowing through their towns for months every year, it’s a whole different situation.
We reached out to the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe to share their side of the story. Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe Chairman Anthony Sampson generously offered to give us his thoughts, as did the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe’s Water Quality Manager Kameron Morgan (who, while neither a member of the Tribe nor a resident of the Reservation, nonetheless provides a valuable perspective). Suffice to say it’s eye-opening and deeply humbling. Here’s the interview:
Q. Please describe life in your community year-round. What’s it like? What about it makes you happy? Is there a strong sense of community?
Our communities are just like any other communities, people work, children go to school, and gather during the holidays, sports events, and community gatherings. The uniqueness of our community is that we always come together during times of tragedy. Over the last two years our homelands have been affected by floods and fires. During these times, our communities have come together – our leaders and departments took the lead in identifying the needs of each tribal community. Our community members also came out and helped in donating clothing, blankets and goods. What makes me personally happy was accepting Lord Jesus Christ into my life and family life. My wife and I have been married for 36 years and raised our kids out here into the adults that they are today – but this isn’t about us, it’s about Pyramid Lake. For the Tribe, it’s the tranquility of our lives. It’s a slow life.
Q. Please describe what it’s like for your community when the Burning Man event happens? What are the challenges the town and its people experience? Is there anything you enjoy about that time?
The biggest thing that I notice during the event is that it is chaotic on the Reservation. Traffic is always backed up, Burners are always getting out of their cars and dancing in the street, they’re running across the roads (especially during traffic jams), they’re out there playing Frisbee, people are going to the bathroom on the side of the road. In the past, I’ve had participants camping in my driveway that I had to ask to leave. After they left, I realized that they had left garbage and other things behind.
One of the things that’s beneficial to the Tribe is that community members have an opportunity to make a little extra income. Some tribal members set up food stands and garbage collection stations. These community members benefit from the event, but others do not.
I can only speak to the time leading up to and after the event. One of our biggest challenges is the huge increase in traffic. The Reservation contains three rural communities, which requires people to commute to their job or to conduct their daily business. The traffic isn’t just limited to the participants, it also includes all the infrastructure that is needed to build one of the largest cities in Nevada. Local community members have to leave early during those approximate 3 weeks to ensure they get to where they need to go on time.
Q. If you could talk to all of the Burning Man participants who come through your town (and here’s a great opportunity to do so), what would you want them to know?
Burning Man ends on Labor Day each year, which is a busy weekend for the Reservation, as we receive many visitors that are camping and boating at Pyramid Lake. The mass exodus of 80,000 people exasperates all the impacts that occur anyways from having a high volume of people here on the Reservation for the holiday weekend.
Permits – Every year, there are Burners that want to swim and/or camp at Pyramid Lake before or after Burning Man that don’t pay permit fees, resulting in a loss of revenue. We welcome anyone who would like to visit the lake, but all visitors must purchase a permit for camping, boating, fishing, or day-use through the Tribe’s website, or at any of the stores throughout the Reservation. Visitors must abide by all Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe rules and regulations. An informational brochure can be obtained through purchasing a permit, or at the tribe’s website at plpt.nsn.us.
Reckless Driving – Every year we see a significant number of reckless drivers. People trying to pass slow vehicles, disregarding pedestrians at crosswalks, exceeding the posted speed limit, tailgating and stopping in dangerous areas. These dangerous actions put our community members and employees at risk.
Open Range – The Reservation is considered “open-range,” which means that there is unenclosed land throughout the Reservation for which livestock are free to graze about freely. Some years we have livestock that are hit by vehicles traveling along the main corridors.
Emergency response – Our Emergency Response Program, which responds to fires, rescues and various emergencies, as well as our Police Department, operates with a small number of personnel. The Reservation is over 477,000 acres, so responding to incidents can take some time- regardless of Labor Day weekend at the lake or the Burning Man event. Our emergency response resources are stretched thin and responding to incidents involving the Burning Man event takes the help away needed by the tribal communities. Also, if there’s a call that requires transporting a patient to the hospital in Reno, that could further delay response time if there’s another medical call.
Cultural artifacts – The Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe has inhabited the region for thousands of years and there are cultural artifacts throughout the area. Visitors need to be aware that excavation, destroying, or defacing any historic or cultural sites is prohibited; and cultural resources and plants are not to be removed from the reservation. This includes defacing any of the rocks throughout the Reservation, which have been affected by graffiti in the past. Burners should know that there are a number of culturally-sensitive areas that are closed to visitors, including the entire east side of the lake (Pyramid and Stonemother), the lower Truckee River, and north of Pyramid Lake at the Needles
Unlike most lakes in the world that end in the ocean, Pyramid Lake is a desert terminal lake (there is no outlet). The only way water leaves the lake is through evaporation. All pollutants that runoff into Pyramid Lake stay in Pyramid Lake. Many of the vehicles passing through the Reservation are not properly maintained, resulting in vehicles leaking oil and other chemical constituents. Another problem is when there are RVs with overly-full black and greywater tanks leaving the event that leak while they’re driving down the highway. All these contaminants are deposited onto the highway and then transported to nearby waterways through stormwater runoff whenever we receive our next storm event. It’s important for visitors to ensure that their RVs and other vehicles are properly maintained while driving through the reservation.
Increased fire danger: Over the last couple of years, we’ve seen a dramatic increase of wildfires here on the Reservation and around the region. We’ve received a lot of precipitation, which results in a lot of overgrown and dry vegetation. While we haven’t experienced any fires that were sparked by Burners, there is an increased risk of sparking a fire if visitors don’t stay on designated roads. It’s also important if people need to pull over on the shoulder, that they do so in an appropriate area where there is potential for sparking a fire. Lastly, I think it goes without saying to not throw a cigarette butt out your window.
Q. Do you feel like Burning Man participants are generally respectful to your community?
I think in general, the majority of participants are respectful of our community. We also get people who are impatient and annoyed of the lines in our stores and then are rude to the clerks.
Since working for the Tribe, I haven’t had the opportunity to interact with participants within the community as I’m always at the event for the week.
Q. What can Burning Man participants do differently to lessen the impact we have on your community, or to improve relations?
Visitors need to be mindful that on their way to and from Burning Man, that they need to conduct themselves appropriately while visiting our community. There are tribal elders, children, and tribal members occupying the same public space as burners, such as the convenience stores or beaches; and in the past, we’ve had participants using derogatory language or not dressed appropriately for spaces outside of Burning Man. Public nudity of all kinds, such as bathing or swimming nude on the beaches, is prohibited.
Trash. Most Burning Man participants are great stewards in the leave-no-trace principle and will dispose of or recycle their trash in the proper locations, but with the mass exodus of 80,000 people, accidents happen and there are some people that blatantly don’t follow the leave-no-trace principle. Some participants don’t properly strap down their garbage and it falls out while they’re driving down the highway. This garbage is either dispersed immediately upon impact, or wildlife will eventually get into it. In either case, garbage is dispersed through the frequently windy conditions that occur on the Reservation.
Another way we’re impacted by trash is by people that want to get rid of their garbage right away and not pay for the services offered by the numerous trash collection areas that Tribal members provide. We have large trash bins throughout the lakeshore that are meant to be used by our Labor Day weekend visitors. With the high volume of visitors to Pyramid Lake and the Burning Man exodus, these bins quickly fill up and begin to overflow. After a while, people start to place garbage outside of/next to the bin, which is easily accessible to wildlife. We also sometimes see people throwing away furniture in the dumpsters, which requires our staff to physically climb into the dumpsters to remove the items, which increases risk of injury and time needed to deal with the trash. We know which trash is from Pyramid Lake visitors and which is from Burning Man participants, based on whether there’s white dust covering the garbage. Another thing we see at least once every year is abandoned or crash and abandoned RV, camper, or vehicle, which is never claimed by its owner and just sits on the reservation for days or weeks until it’s removed. I think Burners can improve relations by ensuring that they bring their trash home with them (or disposing it at a proper location) and do a better job at strapping down their trash when they leave.
Q. What can Burning Man participants do to help your community?
I wish there was a Burning Man delegation to be here on the Reservation during the event to see what types of things are happening. There are Burning Man staff that pass through the event, but there isn’t a staff member that’s here 24/7 seeing what we’re seeing. Maybe participants can keep a check on each other. If a participant sees another participant out in the community not acting appropriately, or not doing what they’re not supposed to be doing, then say something to that individual. Be courteous to our staff that work in our stores.
Disposing of their trash properly (see above). Behave/dress in this community as they would in their community. Purchase a permit if they plan to visit the lake.
Q. Have you been to Black Rock City? If so, what did you think about it?
No, I have never been out to Burning Man.
Before I worked for the Tribe and graduated college, I worked in the service industry in Reno and dreaded the event every year. I served many Burners that had been in the desert for a week or more that had not yet showered and some didn’t tip in the sit-down restaurant I worked at. Although I had friends that were Burners that loved the event, I had a lot of negative preconceptions about the event and always said that I would never go to the event. However, when I started working for the Tribe in 2013, I had the opportunity to attend and warmed up to the idea of going. That same year, I decided to go out with a group of friends for 3-days and immediately fell in love. It completely changed my mind and now wonder why I ever felt the way that I did. I’ve been going to Burning Man ever since.
This post is part of our ‘Consider Your Impact’ series, where we’re telling stories that explore our community’s known and lesser-known effects on not just the Black Rock Desert itself, but the world around us as well. We hope it will raise awareness and inspire you to, well, consider your impact. Hence the name.
Top photo of the Pyramid Lake Reservation sign c/o Wikimedia Commons.