There's drama brewing in the Nevada desert.
As such fights in the desert are wont to do, it's over flushing toilets, air conditioning and hot water. And it's pitting Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and the hippies against the federal government.
The Reno Gazette Journal reported Friday that in order to permit September's Burning Man festival, the federal agency responsible for the land where the festival is held -- and therefore the safety of the people camping out on the land -- is requesting special housing accommodations for its "VIP" officials.
It's not clear who those "VIP" officials are, but the Gazette Journal's Jenny Kane, who broke the story, said the Bureau of Land Management wants Burning Man organizers to spend between $1 and $1.5 million on a compound within festival bounds for "flushing toilets to be cleaned daily by Burning Man staff, a laundry with washers and dryers, on-demand hot water, air conditioning, vanity mirrors, refrigerators and couches."
The accommodations are not just for BLM law enforcement, who are tasked with making sure no one dies in the increasingly crowded festival (last year, a woman was run over and killed). If past festivals are any indication, the compound is also likely to house top Department of Interior and Justice officials and members of Congress, who are known to take a trip to Burning Man, ostensibly to check in on the government's management of it.
But this is the first time the BLM has made such lavish requests (they also want access to ice cream, Kane reports). That really doesn't fly with Burning Man organizers, who pride themselves on holding a week-long festival in the ungodly hot and dry Black Rock desert, with 65,000-70,000 people using only port-a-potties and whatever else they brought with them to survive. (The festival also draws celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio and tech CEOs like Elon Musk, who pay for their own lush accommodations and are most definitely not toughing it out.)
Apparently the government's request didn't go over well with Harry Reid. The Senate minority leader sent a letter Friday to BLM's parent agency, the Department of the Interior, urging officials to drop their request and just camp out in the desert like everyone else.
"Part of Burning Man’s philosophy is self-reliance, and living with the elements is part of the experience," Reid said. "Flush toilets and laundry facilities can be found about 10 miles away in Gerlach, Nev., if BLM’s employees need such amenities."
Reid is a man of the desert himself: He grew up in a speck of a mining town in southern Nevada (the "Man from Searchlight," etc.) and got his kicks swimming in the local whorehouse pool.
But Reid siding with the desert-raving tripping hippies was a little surprising. The formerly anti-gun-control, anti-abortion-rights Democrat is decidedly not a hippie. He also has large fingerprints on the agency at the center of this debate: One of his top aides now heads the BLM.
The debate is still ping-ponging back and forth this week, with BLM officials saying they erred in using the phrasing "VIP" but refusing to stand down on their requested compound.
"It's safe to say that if you were working 14 to 16 hours a day in white-out conditions on the hot playa, you don't want to be unrested," local BLM manager Gene Seidlitz told the Gazette Journal.
The next move belongs to Harry Reid and/or his fellow Burning Man supporters.
But if you take one thing from this story, let it be that out West, land ownership is not a simple matter. In fact, it's probably one of the biggest issues with regard to the federal government. The federal government owns about 80 to 85 percent of Nevada, much of that managed by the BLM.
Many locals, especially in rural areas, resent the government ownership of the land they walk on and live on. The Nevada state Senate passed a resolution this spring taking 7 million acres of public land from the government, only to find out that's unconstitutional.
Members of Congress, like Rep. Cresent Hardy (R-Nev.), have been elected in part on their promise to fight against more government control of the land.
And then there's the Cliven Bundy debacle, which took anti-government sentiment out West to the extreme. Last April, BLM officials trying to round up Bundy's illegally grazing cattle almost got in a shoot-out with an underground cadre of rifle-toting militiamen who came from across the country to defend Bundy. (You knew that acronym, BLM, sounded familiar!)
Reid is actually on the other side of this land debate. He and most Democrats think the federal government managing large swaths of land helps the state save money, because Nevada could never afford to take care of millions more acres of largely uninhabited land. Reid has worked extensively over his 32-year career in Congress to cede even more land in the state to federal control.
No land is changing hands during Burning Man. The question is whether money to build flushing toilets will.
Correction: This post has been updated to reflect the cost of the BLM's requested compound, which is between $1 million and $1.5 million. The entire cost of a permit for Burning Man is $5 million.