Burning Man hopes to attract 58,000 patrons this year, and organizers boast that the festival is already sold out.
But the event is technically on government probation for exceeding last year’s attendance limit, and its authorized 2012 population is still unclear.
An application to authorize 58,000 attendees at the weeklong art festival held around Labor Day in the Nevada desert is pending an environmental assessment. But if organizers exceed their authorized limits again, they could face suspension.
In October, Black Rock LLC, the organization behind the festival, received a notice of violation for exceeding its 2011 population limit by nearly 4,000 people, according to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. The permit authorized 50,000 people.
“We felt it was necessary to issue a notice of noncompliance,” said Gene Seidlitz, district manager of the land bureau office in Winnemucca, Nev. “It means Black Rock City has not operated within its terms and conditions.”
Black Rock LLC has appealed the decision, which is still pending.
The 25-year-old festival sold out for the first time last year. Organizers had been working to increase the population under a five-year permit. The festival’s previous permit expired in 2010 and organizers sought one-year permits while the environmental assessment and reviews for a five-year permit were being considered.
One stipulation of the probation notice is that the festival cannot again exceed the limit on the maximum number of participants. If that were to happen, Burning Man could potentially face a permit
“Hopefully that doesn’t happen,” Seidlitz said. “But if they receive probationary status two years in a row, the BLM can suspend, cancel or deny any permit in the future.”
In the meantime, though, organizers are proceeding with plans for this year’s festival even without knowing how many visitors they can legally accommodate, which could range from 50,000 to 60,000 depending on the BLM’s decision.
Black Rock spokeswoman Marian Goodell said the organization is operating under the assumption that it will be authorized to host 58,000 people because that is within the range the BLM provided under an application to increase the population to 70,000 over the next five years.
Goodell said this year’s festival has sold out, but declined to say at what level.
Regardless of the uncertainty, both BLM and festival organizers said they are hopeful the event will continue. They expect to have a final decision in June, when the final environmental assessment is expected to be released and a decision on the appeal should be announced.
“Of course we’d like to have had the permit earlier,” Goodell said. “But it’s a very careful process. And right now the brakes are on.”