The ephemeral nature of our desert metropolis is a large part of what makes Black Rock City what it is. The city is built, we Burn, and then everything is systematically taken down and picked up. But it would be a (forgivable) misnomer to say that what we build together is “a week in the desert.” Although it’s true that the Burning Man event officially lasts eight days, it might be more accurate to call Black Rock City “a few months in the desert.”
I remember looking out my car window the first time I left Black Rock City in 2013 when the event was over and thinking, “Man, there’s still a lot of stuff out here.” I wondered how long all the big theme camps took to clean up their plots, but beyond that, how did the infrastructure get packed up? What I didn’t know was that there’s a team of hardy individuals who work from dawn to dusk for weeks after the Man and Temple are long gone, meticulously restoring the Black Rock Desert playa to a better condition than when the Golden Spike was pounded into the ground in July.
I was lucky enough to spend Monday, October 3 on playa with DA (aka Dominic Tinio), DPW’s Environmental Restoration Manager, and the entire 2022 Resto Crew. The creator of the MOOP Map, DA’s been doing this for quite a while (think decades), and has written extensively about Leaving No Trace in our temporary city, the resto process and team, and his personal journey through Burning Man. Here are some snippets of our conversations from the day we spent together, from the 7:30am DPW meeting to the 6pm closing team session on the steps of The Saloon in Gerlach.
Dominique: First of all, how was your Burn?
DA: It was everything! It’s the Burn so there were amazing moments like always. The weather was probably the hardest I’ve ever dealt with though, and I’ve been doing this a long time. Some years you get one big dust storm that you remember the rest of the year, and that can be a lot of fun. But the dust and heat from 2022 was something else. It drains you for sure. But yeah, it’s the playa so I also had some great moments too. Seeing old friends, spending time with my colleagues.
How has Playa Restoration been going compared to other years?
People are crushing it, and believe it or not the weather has been good for Resto. Not much dust, and better temperatures. This project goes in cycles — some years are tough, and some are easier than others. But we’ve got our best game going, and the Resto team is great.
This is definitely the MOOPiest playa I’ve seen in a long time. Usually by now in the Resto process you don’t see any more big pieces [of MOOP] out there and most of the team’s MOOP buckets are just small things, but every once in a while we’ll run into pieces of a broken hexayurt or a trash bag that’s half-buried in the ground. I think the non-stop dust contributed to that, stuff is just under layers of earth. Everyone who went to Burning Man this year is also a bit out of practice. Now we’ve got our BLM inspection coming up on Thursday.
Right, the inspection. Let’s remind everyone about that. You guys have passed every one, right?
That’s right! The Playa Restoration All Star team is undefeated. We’ve passed every single Bureau of Land Management inspection since we started this thing.
What does it take to pass the site inspection?
So the area of the playa we cover is over 3,600 acres. That’s 156 million square feet. The sheer size is pretty inconceivable. Our success is measured by the BLM in terms of “residual debris.” A month after the BRC event ends, the BLM tests a bunch of points on the playa. The playa must not exceed an average of one square foot of debris per acre (1 ft²/ac) during the BLM’s Post-Event Inspection. Translated into percentages, this means that exceeding .002% of debris per acre on average would be a fail score. It’s such a tiny amount, and we’re really proud as a team that we have always passed the test. 2019 was our best year ever.
Between now and the inspection on Thursday, what are your biggest priorities?
The open playa’s the biggest thing left. So the city blocks end at 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock. The big area between those — 10:30, 11:00, 11:30, 12:00, 1:00, etcetera — out by where the Temple used to be, or what many people call “deep playa.” All of that’s getting taken care of by Thursday. The inner city playa is basically all done.
But now we’re really picking up a lot of the very tiny stuff. Your eye wouldn’t see it just walking around, but you squat down and you find the small scraps.
You guys are so dialed in, and from what I’m seeing the process on your end seems to run pretty smoothly. Any challenges? How do you improve this operation every year?
This year the main challenge is we’re spread thin with our numbers. We’re used to having about 175 people, but we’ve been running on closer to 125 this season. We’re covering the same amount of territory though, so people are doing line sweeps a bit wider apart from each other than normal.
But our process works great. We have our four line sweep teams moving together through certain areas of the city, then they hop on the buses and go to the next spot that needs sweeping. Way back when, we started with just one line team of about 30 people. So over the years we increased the size of our team to two teams, then three, and now four line sweep teams. We also have our Special Forces team that deals with larger problem spots. Some of our tech is improving too: we have better GPS to know where we are and so that we can track and record what MOOP is where. It helps with our consistency.
You’ve said for years that the worst MOOP on playa is microMOOP — woodchips, cigarette butts, plastic debris, etcetera. Is there anything your team is seeing this year that is different?
We are seeing a LOT of tent stakes, cement stakes, rebar, and lag bolts. It’s HUGE this year. It looks like a lot of people staked things down or drilled them in but for whatever reason didn’t take them out. Maybe people forgot some, or they didn’t have the energy to take them out, or the batteries on their drills were dead by the end of the event. But there are a lot of them stuck in the ground and we’re having to yank them out ourselves. That’s the number one unique thing to 2022. We’ve never seen this many of that category. We’re also seeing a bunch of rugs and carpets for whatever reason. Also cardboard!
So the other big thing coming is the MOOP Map. The community always looks forward to seeing this, and I know you try to emphasize that it’s an educational tool — not a tool to shame people, but instead to inspire participants to think about their process.
Yes, exactly. The MOOP Map project is meant to show folks how things went and also motivate them to leave no trace. The 2019 MOOP Map was the best one yet. Also, getting green on the map does not mean “there was no MOOP.” This is a common misconception.
Wait, green doesn’t mean “no MOOP?” What does it mean then? Because I definitely thought it meant no trash or debris on that specific plot of land.
Nope! A lot of folks think that, even though we’ve never said it. Green means that we didn’t have to slow down to inspect a plot. So we might still find some small amounts of MOOP as we go, but the natural flow of our line sweeps isn’t stopped or delayed. Yellow means we had to slow down a lot and pick things up, dig things out, etcetera. Then red means we were at a full stop and took extra time to deal with a specific area, and/or that there was a serious problem with MOOP somewhere. But yeah, green doesn’t mean sparkling clean and perfect, just that we moved through at a good pace.
After this Playa Resto season, what are your top MOOP tips for participants?
Don’t leave your stakes in the ground, pull them out! There’s so much of that this year. Don’t leave your carpets and rugs behind! Pack it in, pack it out. Also, rake your camp every day. Otherwise junk gets buried and then you don’t see it later. The big blowable MOOP goes all the way to the trash fence, but the small stuff remains behind.
Good luck out there, my friend. Thank you for everything you and your team are doing.
LEAVE NO TRACE!
Author’s note: Hearing this song, on repeat, in the middle of nowhere, when it’s hot as blazes, and you’re hunting for micro-MOOP, is a true out of body experience. Thank you. You know who you are.
Check out DA speaking about Playa Restoration in this great Profiles in Dust documentary, “The Great Disappearing City.”
All images courtesy of the author.