RENO, Nev. — The Black Rock Playa is an exceptional place.
Stretching across about 200 square miles, the sandy stretch of Black Rock Desert is as flat as a tabletop. Often flooded in winter, it's dusty dry come summer.
Silent, empty and harsh, few places like it exist on the planet.
"It's a really special place," said Ken Adams, a geologist with the Desert Research Institute in Reno. "What makes the Black Rock Playa unique is its size, its smoothness and its flatness."
But if the ancient lake bed is unique in its nature, there's more to it. Much more.
For the past 20 years, the playa has been home to the Burning Man annual counterculture art festival. Desert silence is replaced with costumed desert craziness, culminating with the burning of the towering effigy of "The Man."
Last year's event, climaxing over Labor Day weekend, attracted more than 51,000 people to the remote playa about 120 miles northeast of Reno.
The festival's organizer, Black Rock City LLC, is asking the federal Bureau of Land Management to issue a five-year permit to continue Burning Man on about 4,400 acres of public land from 2011 to 2015. It would increase the number of people potentially attending the event to 60,000.
The BLM plans open houses on the proposal Tuesday, Dec. 7, at the Lovelock Community Center in Lovelock, Nev.; on Wednesday, Dec. 8, at the Gerlach Community Center in Gerlach, Nev.; and Thursday, Dec. 9, at the Hyatt Place Hotel in Reno.
Can the playa handle five more years of Burning Man?
Is there a tipping point beyond which it can no longer withstand the impacts of what, at least for a week, becomes one of Nevada's largest cities?
Black Rock City representatives, who pride themselves on the motto of "leave no trace," say yes.
Some critics say no. They worry the long-term ecological impacts of the festival might be irreversible.
BLM officials say that while there are impacts to the land, the playa generally appears to heal itself.
"As far as the playa taking a beating, I don't think it has," said Gene Seidlitz, manager of the BLM's Winnemucca district. "There has been no adverse impact to the playa."
Others are skeptical, including Bob Fulkerson, a Reno conservationist who regularly hikes in the Black Rock Desert but who has never been and "will never go" to Burning Man.
Heavy vehicle traffic associated with the event is crushing the playa's surface every summer, possibly causing cumulative damage that will only worsen as the event grows in scale, Fulkerson said. "I honestly think they're doing a lot more damage out there than people realize," Fulkerson said. "Frankly, I find it offensive."
With the event now attracting 50,000-plus participants and the new permit request for up to 10,000 more, the playa could be nearing an ecological breaking point, Fulkerson said.
"When you've crossed that point, it's too late to do anything about it," Fulkerson said. "I don't think anyone can say if we've reached that point. Are we headed in that direction? Absolutely."
Burning Man organizers say protecting the playa is a foremost priority. Participants are required to clean up after themselves at campsites, while volunteers — often still working a month after the event — sweep the site of Black Rock City to gather any remaining debris, said Andie Grace, communications manager for Burning Man. "It's in our core. It's a very spiritually important thing for us," Grace said. "We love that desert, and we want to leave it in the best possible shape we can."
Ray Allen, government and legal affairs chief for Burning Man, said efforts extend far beyond picking up litter and that the organization works closely with the BLM to ensure the playa suffers no long-term damage.
"So far, we haven't found any," he said.
As it grows, Burning Man benefits the region's economy, bringing business to Reno, Sparks, Gerlach and other communities.
Annual economic benefits to Washoe County are at least $13 million, Allen said. In 2009, Burning Man paid more than $600,000 in "cost recovery" to the BLM.
Seidlitz said early rains already have flooded parts of the playa and impeded inspection of the site after this year's festival. But during previous years, "they've always fulfilled" obligations to protect the land, he said.
Matthew Ebert, executive director of the Gerlach-based nonprofit conservation group Friends of Black Rock/High Rock and a one-time Black Rock City employee, agrees.
Organized efforts to minimize impacts on the land have only improved as the event evolved over the years, Ebert said. "Burning Man has always been held to a high standard, and they've always worked to meet or exceed that standard," Ebert said.
Festival attendees, or "burners," are passionate about an event that many say has changed their lives.
"It's impossible to describe," said Jim Jacoby, an investment banker from Newcastle, Calif., who goes by the moniker "Dr. Pyro" during Burning Man, which he has attended for the past 12 years.
"It's the one place you can do or find anything you want. It's freedom in the desert for a week," said Jacoby, 56.
From his perspective, the playa "is holding up just fine."
Adams, joined by biologist Donald Sada, undertook a study of "playa dynamics" in 2006 at the request of t he BLM. The scientists were tasked with exploring, among other things, whether human activity on the playa contributed to dust storms and an increasing number of "playa serpents," or small, temporary sand dunes atop the hardpan officials reported noticing in the late 1990s, Adams said.
In a report released last May, the researchers concluded that the scope of human-related changes to the playa is largely determined by the degree of winter flooding. During dry years, when the impacts of vehicle traffic and other activity are not erased by flooding and deposition of new sediment, damage to the playa surface is still noticeable and dust storms more likely.
But after a wet winter, "the playa is hard during the following summer and evidence of vehicle traffic is minimal, which suggests the surface is relatively stable," according to the report.
"Because this spot is flooded every few years or so, it counteracts the effects of Burning Man," Adams said. "The flooding is a good thing for the playa."
Research does indicate vehicle use and camping in the area of Black Rock City decreases the density of eggs of aquatic species that thrive on the flooded playa, including fairy shrimp, tadpole shrimp and water fleas. Additional studies are necessary to gauge the degree of that impact, scientists said.
Can Black Rock Playa survive Burning Man?
RENO, Nev. — The Black Rock Playa is an exceptional place.