Statement on Police Activity on the Road to BRC

By Burning Man

The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), an agency of the U.S. Department of the Interior, is conducting intensive law enforcement operations on Highway 447 in Wadsworth and Nixon. Many of these stops progress into lengthy vehicle searches, and they are using dogs to inspect vehicles. We’ve been told this operation will continue throughout the week and possibly into next week, when the Burning Man event is officially underway.

While we respect and appreciate the important work of law enforcement, we are greatly concerned by the real and potential negative impacts of this surge in activity.

Over the next seven days, we anticipate more than 60,000 people will drive Highway 447 on their way to the Black Rock Desert. The frequency and intensity of stops is already having, and will continue to have, negative implications and effects. We have shared all of the following concerns with the BIA:

  1. Black Rock City Operations. The BIA traffic stops have already caused delays for our operational leadership and public safety staff reporting to work onsite, and they have caused significant delays in infrastructure deliveries. If these delays continue, it could impact our ability to provide key public services at the event.
  2. Public health and safety. Traffic stops on Highway 447, which has no shoulder, create a hazard for drivers and for public health and safety officials. This is why we have worked with agencies including the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, Bureau of Land Management, Nevada Highway Patrol, Washoe County Sheriff’s Office, Pershing County Sheriff’s Office, and the Nevada Department of Transportation to prevent delays. Now trailers and trucks are being unloaded and searched by BIA agents, and drivers are left to reload vehicles on the side of the road. In the coming days, artists, theme camps, and mutant vehicle projects will all arrive with carefully loaded vehicles and trailers, and these traffic stops may cause significant delays and roadside hazards.
  3. Traffic congestion. BIA did not do any advance planning with Burning Man or NDOT. We have reason to believe BIA has not thoroughly considered the impact this will have on traffic in the region. If the current rate of stops continues as the volume of travelers increases significantly over the coming days, traffic could back up to I-80.
  4. Negative economic impact on the tribe. The Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe is already hearing calls to boycott local businesses. Burning Man does not support these efforts and wants to continue having a robust positive economic impact on local communities.
  5. Lack of coordination with state agencies. It is our understanding the Nevada Department of Transportation was not consulted or notified before this operation began, and coordination with Nevada Highway Patrol and Washoe County Sheriff’s Office was minimal or nonexistent.

Some of the purported reasons provided for the traffic stops include: driving over the posted speed limit, not stopping at the line at a stop sign, crossing the centerline or a tire touching the centerline, partially obscured license plates, not using turn signals, dim and non-functioning lights. These stops often involve police dogs and lengthy vehicle searches, and we have received numerous reports that the police dogs often provide false alerts. We have also received numerous accounts from our staff, contractors and volunteers that they were not breaking any traffic laws when they were stopped. Given the large number of individuals who have reported being stopped when they were not violating any laws, we believe these tactics are overly aggressive, unconstitutional, unnecessary, pretextual and unacceptable.

You might be wondering why this is all happening. So are we. We think the BIA’s efforts to target our community as we prepare for our annual gathering on public lands are misguided.

While BLM law enforcement has conducted aggressive traffic enforcement in past years on Gate Road in Black Rock City, this is the first time the Burning Man event has been targeted for an operation of this magnitude on public highways. The BIA stops appear to be pretextual and not based on actual violations of law. Event organizers and many regional law enforcement agencies were not consulted or notified in advance, so there was no possibility of any planning to mitigate impacts on the local communities and on event infrastructure.

The Burning Man organization does not condone any illegal activity. We urge our participants to obey all local, state, and federal laws, and we appreciate the role of law enforcement. We are also, however, very concerned about the current and potential safety and operational impacts of the Bureau of Indian Affairs operation, particularly as we ramp up to our busiest time on site.

People who are stopped on their way to or from the Burning Man event are invited to complete our Law Enforcement Feedback Form. Whether the experience was negative or positive, we would like to hear about it.