When Friends of Black Rock High Rock was launched 21 years ago, it began as a conglomeration of hunters, ranchers, burners, ecologists and environmentalists that were enthusiastic about the northern Nevada backcountry. The growth of their organization has nearly coincided with the expanding popularity of Burning Man, the world-renown festival hosted in Black Rock Desert every summer. This year, however, they have had to adapt how they advocate for backcountry visits, particularly in light of Burning Man’s postponement amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Pyramid Lake tribe based in the area has experienced a spike in COVID-19 cases, and the town of Gerlach may be particularly vulnerable as well, due to its aging population. Consequently, Stacey Wittek, Executive Director of Black Rock High Rock, suggests that now might not be the best time to visit the Black Rock backcountry. But if people do decide to visit, she hopes they do so responsibly.
“You may want to come out there and hold your own little Burning Man festival,” Wittek said. “[But] if you’re passing through and you’re stopping at Empire, put your mask on, wash your hands and make sure that you are socially-distancing when you go to those stores. Also, wipe off the gasoline pumps after [using them] because there is an aging population that is particularly at-risk.”
Another consideration Wittek hopes visitors understand is the lack of immediate support and medical care available in the National Conservation Area (NCA), which is now exacerbated by the pandemic.
“Be very aware that when you come out here, there are no hospitals,” Wittek said, citing that the nearest medical care facility is 140 miles away. “You have to be very self-actualized now more than ever because if BLM [Bureau of Land Management] offices are still closed, there’s less patrolling and there’s less people out there that can provide rescue for you.”
These new advocacy measures come with walking a fine line that many businesses in the hospitality and tourism industry now face as the economy reopens. Historically, the influx in traffic to Black Rock for Burning Man has economically benefited Friends of Black Rock High Rock and the nearby town of Gerlach.
“When Burning Man happens, we have hundreds and thousands of people who come through the area who might stop at our Visitor Center in Gerlach and learn a little bit more about the area,” Wittek said. “We are on the last-chance outpost during about a month of that time, which really is not only just outreach towards people that are coming through, but the things that we offer for retail are really conservation-minded.”
Wittek hopes people can channel the creative Burning Man mindset into how they engage with the designated NCA during the outbreak.
“Burning Man is a conduit of creativity,” Wittek said. “It creates a community channel for people to express themselves in exciting, interesting and challenging ways. So COVID is another opportunity to try to figure out how to be creative and channel that energy into a new permutation.”
The Burning Man festival typically occurs during the week leading up to and including Labor Day weekend. In April, the BLM told the Ally in an email that it would close the playa this summer if they believe too large an unpermitted gathering will occur at the end of August or at any time. There are no immediate plans to limit access to the NCA.
Wittek stresses the importance that those who do visit share the same values that Burning Man upholds. It’s all part of being good stewards of the land, according to Wittek.
“Burning Man is the largest ‘Leave No Trace’ event in the world and that is an extraordinarily important part of the way that we operate. We want people to come and experience [the NCA], but we want them to understand the principles of Leave No Trace, including camping on durable surfaces and camping 300 feet away from a hot spring.”
Since the pandemic took hold of the country in mid-March, Wittek and Friends of Black Rock High Rock have seen an actual increase in traffic to the more popular areas within the NCA, especially Black Rock Point, Trego and Soldier Meadows.
“One of the things that we’re also seeing is that a lot of people are just coming to the edges of what we call the ‘Coastline of the Playa,’ to responsibly distance camp,” Wittek said. “So as we’ve had increased traffic, we’re really trying to educate people that there are a ton of beautiful assets to experience in the NCA that aren’t about going to the most sensitive of resources.”
Wittek understands the desire for people, many of whom have been self-isolating and socially-distancing during the pandemic, to come out and explore the public lands. Public lands have played a large role in recreational activities for Nevadans in the past, but they will play an even larger role as the country moves forward from the pandemic.
“[Public lands] are a nice kind of pressure valve release for people who would have been trapped indoors,” Wittek said. “The beautiful possibility of this is that people want to be outside more than they ever have in a long time and see the value of that educational opportunity to explore Black Rock.”
So as the state of Nevada has shifted into Phase Two of Governor Steve Sisolak’s Silver State Stabilization plan, Friends of Black Rock High Rock has had to get creative in their efforts moving forward as well.
“We hope to begin again with programming in July and August for the Fly Ranch programs,” Wittek said. “The Office of Outdoor Recreation is coming up with management plans in the time of COVID. So they’re coming up with recommendations of group [sizes] that would allow our conservation projects, campouts and biking to start again. We’d like to run bike tours and we’d like to go back to our programs like Wilderness First Aid and CPR classes.”
Traditionally, Friends of Black Rock High Rock has offered about 20 programs for people to explore, learn about and become involved with the Black Rock backcountry. One program includes a partnership with the BLM that brings in two artists-in-residence each year to explore the area and create work that is inspired by public lands.
“[After the artists] come out here, we support them by holding three different receptions and promoting their work in that area. That’s fabulous because it gives people who may not ever come out here a chance to experience [Black Rock] through the eyes of somebody who is going to apply a creative and perhaps philosophical filter to the place,” Wittek said.
Other programs derive from their partnerships with Nevada Outdoor School and Friends of Nevada Wilderness. Over the past 20 years, their partnership with Earth Guardians has led to an ongoing educational camp about the NCA, global climate change, sustainable cultures and art initiatives that focus on water and agriculture.
One of their staple programs, Black Rock Rendezvous, includes providing tours and programs for the general public that might otherwise be hesitant to explore the backcountry due to its remoteness.
“Many of our designated routes require a four-by-four vehicle,” Wittek said. “So we are able to conduct tours and programs that educate people about the diversity, the beauty and the cultural history of the place. [Programs are] led by scientists, environmental experts and sometimes ‘desert rats’ who love to come out here and enjoy the chance to share it with other people.”
This year, however, Black Rock Rendezvous was held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the challenge of hosting the event virtually, Wittek states it was a huge success.
“I think we probably had as many people attending our breakout sessions as we did when we had [an in-person event], so to speak,” Wittek said.
As part of this year’s virtual event, a member of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe discussed the recent reintroduction of bighorn sheep to their reservation. The reintroduction of bighorn sheep marks the first time the species has been on tribal lands in over a century.
“That’s a fascinating story that you could live all your life and never know,” Wittek said. “Then we had a gentleman from the Fleischmann Planetarium come and talk about meteors and dark skies.”
Although the dark skies segment typically relates just to the Black Rock area, which is essentially void of light pollution, this year the discussion was shaped around what might be seen in dark skies from your own backyard.
Friends of Black Rock High Rock also provides visitors with a taste of Burning Man, with installations that are in place on the Fly Ranch property year-round.
“We partner with Fly Ranch to do nature walks, conservation projects and camp-outs within the Fly Geyser and Fly Ranch property,” Wittek said. “So people who have never gone to Burning Man can get a microcosm, a slice of what Burning Man is by some of the installations that are [there].”
The Burning Man installations include some that are new and others that are historical, like the Baba Yaga House.
“We have people who come out to [the Baba Yaga House], and those on nature walks get a three-hour tour of the geyser, which has a focus on geothermal activity and the geological history of the area.”
While they hope to resume their normal operations in full by National Public Lands Day on September 26, in the meantime Friends of Black Rock High Rock will continue the site stewardship and site monitoring that have been their primary tasks since the pandemic outbreak.
Scott King is a graduate student at the University of Nevada, Reno, pursuing his Master’s degree in Media Innovation. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, Scott recently returned from Grenada, where he served for two years as a literacy teacher with the Peace Corps. Support his work in the Ally.