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Burning Man narrowly passes environmental inspection months after torrential rain upended festival

The organizers of the Burning Man festival narrowly passed their environmental inspection after mass torrential rains closed roads, jammed traffic and forced many to walk miles barefoot through muck, leaving trails of debris in the remote Nevada desert, according to a Wednesday report from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

Burning Man organizers had just over a month to clean up any remnants of the makeshift city built across over 4 square miles of the Black Rock Desert in northwestern Nevada as part of their agreement to use federal land for the festival. Each year, nearly 80,000 artists, musicians and activists gather for a week of camping, partying and performances.

An unusual summer storm left tens of thousands stranded in ankle-deep mud before fleeing, calling into question how much of the festival’s “Leave No Trace” principle could be followed. Each year, attendees vow to pack up everything they brought to the makeshift city, leaving the sprawling stretch of federal land as it was before they arrived.

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The festival passed 109 of the 120 randomly generated inspection points, along with five of six “points of interest” designated by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, according to the report. Had they failed one more point, they would not have passed the inspection.

A passing grade hinged on inspectors finding less than one square foot of debris per acre.

Festival organizers narrowly passed their environmental inspection, according to a report from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management released Nov. 29, 2023. Pictured: A woman walks between cars exiting the Burning Man festival in Black Rock Desert, Nev., on, Sept. 5, 2023. (AP Photo/Andy Barron, File)

This year’s clean-up was “significantly more challenging” due to rain from the event, which buried debris, hardened mud and made cleanup much more difficult for the volunteers, according to the report.

The area became dotted with abandoned vehicles, furniture, tents and trash. Most years, the dry desert floor is harder and easier to navigate.

Still, a narrow passing grade is nothing new.

Burning Man organizers passed the Oct. 7 inspection — “but it was extraordinarily and alarmingly close,” the restoration team’s manager wrote, adding that last year’s was one of the “messiest playas in recent history.”

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That year, the organizers passed 112 of the 120 inspection points — meaning they were four foiled inspection points away from failing.

Despite another close call this year, organizers hailed cleanup crews and volunteers that stayed after the festival.

“The best of the Burning Man community shined through at this year’s event,” said Burning Man Project CEO Marian Goodell in a press release. “Participants rose to the challenge and came together with innovative solutions to problems and incredible expressions of generosity.”

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