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Permit issue keeps 2011 Burning Man limited


SACRAMENTO - One might think the high winds, scorching heat, chilling overnight lows or remote location would be enough to keep people away from Burning Man.

But for the first time in its 25-year history, Burning Man's organizers were forced last month to announce that tickets for the counterculture event were sold out.

Even the guy who wrote the book on Burning Man was caught off guard.

"I didn't have my ticket," said Brian Doherty, author of 2005's "This Is Burning Man."

"I know they said that it could happen, but nobody expected something that has never happened before, to happen. Every single one of us should have planned ahead."

The ticket shortage has triggered a scramble for them by some, scalping by others and concern over what the appropriate size of the event should be.

Ticket sales were not allowed to grow this year because of a permitting issue with the federal Bureau of Land Management, which manages the Black Rock Desert playa where the annual festival takes place.

With its old permit lapsing, event organizer Black Rock City LLC was given a one-year permit to continue operating while a new agreement undergoes environmental study. Instead of receiving its usual 6 percent growth allotment, the organization was required to remain at its 2010 population approximately 50,000 people.

Under the previous agreement, Black Rock paid the BLM's administrative and operational costs associated with staffing the event, along with 3 percent of the event's adjusted gross revenue. That came to $1.2 million in 2010.

BLM officials say they have a good working relationship with Black Rock and that the event does a remarkable job cleaning up after itself. Burning Man revenue helps support interpretative and beautification projects within the larger national conservation area, officials said.

The application under review would run from 2012 to 2016. It would allow 55,000 people to attend the festival in 2012, with the population growing to 70,000 in 2016.

Burning Man began humbly in 1986, when a few friends burned a wooden human effigy on San Francisco's Baker Beach. In 1990, it outgrew the beach and moved to a dry lake bed 110 miles north of Reno.

On the surface, the festival is a colossal costumed camp that attracts people from all over the world. But participants say what sets Burning Man apart is the effort to obliterate the wall between performer and spectator. Professional artists and rank amateurs work side-by-side to create their temporary city.

For a week, from Aug. 29 to Sept. 5 this year, participants will transform the desolate landscape into a pulsating, vibrant community where no money changes hands, art projects fill the desert and the dance party starts when the sun rises.

Some who've found themselves without a ticket this year have been struggling to find them through online auctions, after-market sites or social networking sites.

Dozens of tickets are on sale on eBay, some with an opening asking price of more than double the $360 top-tier original price.

Harlan Smith of Plymouth doesn't want to pay over face value for a ticket, but he is willing to sweeten the pot by offering a free plane ride over the temporary city.

"The whole scalping thing runs counter to the whole Burning Man idea," said Smith, who has attended the event for years.

Amanda Nabor of Camino wants to see what all the fuss is about and has found the online hunt for a ticket exasperating.

"I've been searching for tickets a long time and I'm sick of deal(ing) with fakes!" Nabor wrote in an email to the Sacramento Bee. "I'm like either give me a real honest ticket for the honest price or don't call me at all."

Shawn "Huggy" Williamson of Auburn is also looking. He typically waits to buy a ticket until the last minute just in case he can't go. "Next year, I'll probably buy right away," Williamson said.

Burning Man organizers said they saw demand spike almost immediately after tickets went on sale Jan. 19. The first two tiers of tickets $210 and $240 sold out first. Within 48 hours, 24,000 tickets had been sold, said Andie Grace, a spokeswoman for Burning Man.Grace said the management team is trying to design ways to limit scalping for next year's event.

While many worry about the effect the scarcity of tickets will have on this year's event, others worry that continued growth will dilute the communal spirit of Burning Man.

The concern among some is that growing too fast invites more "frat boy" tourists unconcerned about the event's ideals. Others lament that the temporary city has grown too big for anyone to see everything. "I wish it would have stopped at 25,000 people," said Auburn's Williamson.

Steven Jones, author of the 2011 book "The Tribes of Burning Man," said the organization should more actively involve participants in the decision on whether and how to grow to 70,000 people.

He said the predicament is similar to the one organizers faced after the 1996 event. That year, several participants were seriously injured after a vehicle ran over a campsite at night.

As a result, the event began to pull back from its anarchist early days. The next year, the event created roads and all but eliminated driving, except for art cars.

"Growing toward 70,000 people will have a major effect on the fiber and culture of Burning Man," Jones said.

Grace said the Burning Man community wants people to live by the event's ideals, but organizers don't want to be exclusionary.

"The more people that talk about the experience, the more people that add it to their bucket list," she said.