A year-round opportunity to explore the potential of the Burning Man community.
Burning Man Project purchased the 3,800-acre Fly Ranch property in June 2016. Now that we have a place to explore the potential of a year-round property for the Burning Man community, we have been asking, how do we go about doing this?
Fly Ranch is full of possibility. As a year-round site, Fly Ranch could expand Burning Man Project’s activities and programs to amplify Burning Man’s cultural impact in a wider world beyond Black Rock City. It can serve a incubator for the Burning Man community to take ideas and projects from our ephemeral city and give them a real world testing ground. Perhaps it is a chance for a large scale immersive laboratory for experimentation with shelter, energy, environmentalism, new models of living, working and governance, and other innovations that could drive positive social change.
But what is important about Fly Ranch is not just what we do, but how we do it. The process we undertake, whatever the outcome, is as much a part of this project as the end result. At this early stage, the how is even more important than the what, since the current phase is less focused on what Fly Ranch will become, and more on how the Burning Man principles are incorporated into a project of this nature. At this time we are not as focused on achieving an eventual goal as we are about operating with inclusivity, transparency, and efficiency.
This website is a work in progress meant to explain in the most clear and straightforward terms what we currently know about Fly Ranch and the next steps we hope to take. We will share new information as we learn it and identify challenges and opportunities as we come across them. Over time we will expand this site to include conversation platforms, project management workspaces, and detailed maps of the property.
Have some ideas? Drop us an email at email@example.com. Want to make sure you don’t miss out on any of the progress? Sign up for the Fly Ranch Newsletter and check out the Fly Ranch section of the Burning Man Journal.
The Fly Ranch Project
Fly Ranch is a roughly 3,800-acre parcel of land located 21 miles north of Gerlach, Nevada. The property has 640 acres of wetlands, dozens of natural spring-water pools ranging in temperature from hot to cold, sagebrush-grasslands, and a small area of playa that opens onto the Hualapai Flat. The land’s most prominent feature is the stunning Fly Geyser, a unique and iconic geothermal geyser that constantly releases water reaching five feet in the air, depositing minerals and enabling the growth of multi-colored algae on the terraces surrounding it. The Fly Ranch property is truly an oasis in the desert.
The geyser itself is not entirely naturally occurring. It’s the result of some drilling done in 1964 in search of sources of geothermal energy. The well was likely not capped properly, which created the geyser. And why is it called “Fly” Ranch? The name is believed to be in reference to flight. According to local lore, in the 1930s there was a biplane training facility on the property.
Our own community’s history is intrinsically linked to that of Fly Ranch—we’ve been watering Black Rock City’s roads with geyser water for decades. The 1997 event was held on this property. Fly Ranch’s history is Burning Man’s history.
Just to get this out of the way: Black Rock City will not relocate to Fly Ranch. The property is not suitable for the size and scope of Black Rock City as we now know it. The potential of the Fly Ranch Project is strongest during the other 51 weeks of the year, when the inspiration of Burning Man is searching for a foothold in what was once called the "default world".
Because how we do our work is just as important as what we are doing, we have to be very considerate about why we make the decisions that we do. These decisions are guided of course by the 10 Principles of Burning Man, but the new context of a property that we own, with water, neighbors, plants, and animals has inspired additional values to drive our work.
We will emphasize Communal Effort in our work, inclusion in our process, Civic Responsibility in our resource management and restoration, Decommodification of the land and project, and we will, of course, Leave No Trace. In limited ways we can emphasize Radical Self-Reliance during visits to the site, Radical Self-Expression in our projects, Gifting in our interactions, and Immediacy when we're there. But beyond these cornerstones of Burning Man culture, we have been discovering other values that are critical to our work. Through every phase of this long term project, we hope to:
- Build a meaningful, collaborative process for community engagement. Inclusion is a key to success and fundamental to project development.
- Operate a transparent project that promotes an environment of trust, rich in shared information, embracing open source whenever possible.
- Operate sustainably and in shared interest with the land. Help restore ecological balance to human activity on the land.
- Develop a values-based operating structure to move forward efficiently and with confidence.
- Create relationships with existing and new political, civic, artistic, and philanthropic individuals and groups and explore both how Fly Ranch can support existing Burning Man communities and programs as well as new ones.
Fly Ranch is also an opportunity to examine the 10 Principles in a new context. How does permanent infrastructure align with Leaving No Trace? Could we support the project through Gifting alone? How do we create financial sustainability while holding onto Decommodification? How can we be radically inclusive on a property with a finite capacity for sustainable activity?
Inevitably, there will be differing and sometimes incompatible views. We would like to identify early on the fault lines within the community, staff, local residents, and board members. Will some want to build while others will want no permanent structures? Will some want to charge money while others will not? Once we have a sense of the divisions it will give us a sense of in what areas will require the most conversation as we consider the multitude of issues we will face throughout this project.
Our process will require a balance of playfulness and seriousness, planning and spontaneity, group work and individual contributions. As you may notice, every time we learn something, it usually leads to several more questions. While we discuss our values as part of a long-term vision and project, our current planning is focused on the short term. Many of our goals are things we hope to achieve in the next 12 months. We need to focus on gathering and sharing valuable information and developing the tools to support a long term planning dialogue. Once we have reached that point, and are equipped with the tools we need, then we can begin a conversation about what Fly Ranch will become.
A quick summary of what we’re hoping to accomplish within this 12-month timeline, roughly in this order:
- Spend time on the land and in Gerlach and Empire, surveying the environment.
- Establish security plan and protocols for the property to dissuade trespassing.
- Begin small group visits in partnership with Friends of Black Rock High Rock.
- Develop ‘Town Hall Kit’ for community leader hosted conversations and feedback sessions.
- Engage with the community online, on calls, in person, and in Black Rock City.
- Write a series of posts detailing our planning and ask for feedback. Develop project management software, community engagement tools, and interactive maps.
- Establish a Fly Ranch mission statement and concrete operational goals for 2018-2019.
Is there anything vital we should be doing in our first year that is not referenced here? Are we doing anything that will hinder or prevent a future version of Fly Ranch that you believe in from being realized? Do you or someone you know have the capacity to volunteer to help with one of the projects mentioned? Please drop us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
While we’re far from knowing what the long term plan for Fly Ranch will be, we’ve begun to identify what kind of projects we can look to as mental models, for guidance and for inspiration. Outreach and relationships based on shared values is a part of Burning Man’s effort to help foster a network of sustainable creative communities:
We believe that the solution to material challenges begins with the articulation of shared values among and between our communities in order to change the prevailing mindset, expand the sense of what is possible, and lay the groundwork for material change.
Here are some of the ideas for mental models that we’ve heard regularly throughout the last year:
- Energy park. We could use geothermal, wind, and solar like Kennedy Energy Park.
- Innovation Lab. Like Harvard’s i-Lab or Lowe’s Lab to develop, incubate, and test new technologies.
- Burners Without Borders Hub. To test and develop projects like refugee shelters.
- Sculpture park. A place to showcase large scale collaborative works of art. We can contact sculpture parks like Storm King around the world.
- Organizer space. For innovators and activists to meet, in the model of Highlander Center or Powder Mountain.
- Hot Springs. We have 23 pools, leading to comparisons to Breitenbush, Orr and Harbin.
- Philosophical hub. Following the likes of Esalen, TEDx, or The Long Now Foundation.
- Research center. Math, science, and physics thrive in beautiful research centers.
- Maker space. Maker Faire comparisons come to mind.
- Communal living. A kibbutz, The Dispossessed, Arcosanti, Auroville, East Jesus, and Dune.
- Natural art projects. Akin to James Turell’s Roden Crater or the work of Andy Goldsworthy.
- Desert Art City. Like Marfa.
- Ranch. Niman Ranch and the World Wildlife Fund have sustainable ranching practices.
- Music, camping, and culture. We could host small immersive events or communal experiments.
- Organic Farm. Models such as Green Gulch and Avalon.
- Hydroponics & Aquaculture farms. Like Bolton Farms, FreshBox Farms or Tomales Bay Oysters.
- Wildlife preserve. Like Tompkins Conservation projects.
- Cemetery. We could create a cemetery with artistic tombstones. No, seriously. This comes up a lot.
This list is not exhaustive. We are confident that while we’re inspired by many of these previous models, Fly Ranch will be something uniquely suited to the nature of Burning Man and the Black Rock Desert. We also have our own history to consider; in 2011 Burning Man Co-founder Will Roger and BRC designer Rod Garrett proposed a mixed use plan for Fly Ranch. More models and ideas will continue emerge throughout the coming years. The most concrete thing we know is this: Fly Ranch is an evolving, experiential site for experimental communities.
Larry Harvey has written that consensus and collaboration “only work if people share basic values and operate in a climate of trust that is rich in shared information.” In general, in areas where there is consensus, it is easy to move forward. But “consensus” doesn't necessarily mean that everyone agrees. It means people agree to disagree, and get behind implementing a course of action whether they agree or not. There’s a pretty good chance everyone agrees we should pick up any trash we find on Fly Ranch. So let’s go ahead and do that right away. Other, more complex issues call for further discussion and then a decision made about how to move forward. We’ll be genuinely effective if we share information openly, solicit feedback earnestly, respond and incorporate that feedback, and set expectations about who is doing what and how long projects will take.
Given how the project will start small at first, we can avoid real or perceived failure by articulating what we know and setting a clear vision. As we go, we would like to be as forthright and transparent as we can about what we know, what we don’t know, and what challenges and opportunities we face. We want to operate as nimbly as possible and embrace the spirits of innovation and experimentation. Critical to this path will be to admit when mistakes are made along the way. We’re inspired by GiveWell’s practice of documenting mistakes and lessons learned.
We would like to make as much of our process public as we can. We hope to get direct feedback by organizing town hall meetings, working with experts to incorporate voices not typically represented, and use old-school methods like conference calls and one-on-ones. From there we hope to be able to scale our digital tools to serve as effective community engagement and discussion platforms. In the future, we will be asking people who have signed up for “outreach and communications” to assist us with these processes.
Undoubtedly, there will be disagreements and careful scrutiny of any path we take. This is true for any issue in the Burning Man community; see burn.life, Burn After Reading, or burners.me for the wide range of community coverage we can expect. This is a natural part of being part of a community as passionate and diverse as our, and is part of the magic of Burning Man. There will be a lot of ideas, and it important to sincerely listen to those ideas and learn from the incredible range of expertise and knowledge that is being offered to the project. For the initial phases, our approach will likely not be to determine what the majority of people want and to do that, however. We're more likely to take all the input and then decide a direction that can include as many ideas us possible, but also takes into consideration the financial, legal, and operational reality of the situation. We can’t do everything, but we can find a way to do a lot of things.
As part of our visioning, we’d like to consider not just what we want to occur at Fly Ranch, but what we are interested in leaving people with and what they feel called to do, or become, once they leave. Just like Black Rock City, if the impact is only confined to the venue, then it’s really just a self serving party. Are the transformative experiences like those examined in the Black Rock City Census the kind of things we should hope for?
As stewards of Fly Ranch, we are not responsible just for what we want to do with this property moving forward, but for the history of the space and how it became what it is today. For at least the last 20 years, Fly Ranch has been optimized, sometimes crudely, for the exploitation of water and as a tourist spectacle in ways that have sometimes been to the detriment of the land and it’s inhabitants.
If nothing else, we hope to change the relationship to Fly Ranch from one of being valued primarily through the lens of available resources to one that is in cooperation with natural systems and the needs of its land and those that live there. It’s in line with our values of Civic Engagement and of course, Leave No Trace.
On that topic, here’s a poetic cycle: in 1997 Black Rock City was held on the edge Fly Ranch on the Hualapai Playa. After the event was over, we were forced to leave the property before we were able to clean up all of the infrastructure from the event. Well, guess what? It’s still there.
1997 on Fly Ranch was the only year Burning Man has left a trace, and now we own it.
Let’s go pick it up.
In addition to the art and infrastructure from the 1997 event, we’ve been finding a lot of what we’re calling “artifacts” on Fly Ranch. Scrap metal, hoses, core samples, pieces of cars and planes, discarded machinery, barbed wire, and all kinds of matter out of place. Some of these items are clearly trash that need to be removed, while others could be repurposed or turned into art. While the idea of Fly Ranch is that of a blank slate, the reality is that we’ve got quite a bit of work to do before we are at square one. In the fall, we hope to start working alongside Burners Without Borders to host community cleanup days at Fly Ranch.
In terms of communicating current and future states of Fly Ranch to the public, we’re very excited about the use of mapping to provide context and information about the land. Visually showcasing the land and designing interactive research, project planning, and discussion gives people an idea of the context of the land and what is truly possible. To give a sense of how mapping can be used, we’ve begun tracking the (over 200) objects we have found on the property so far using Google Maps.
Arguably the most important thing we can do with Fly Ranch right now is to sit and observe the environmental factors at play, including the plant and animal residents of the land. To that end, since April, Burning Man Project has had a Land Fellow in the Black Rock Desert and on Fly Ranch as part of Burning Man Project’s Fellows program. Our first fellow to work on Fly Ranch is Lisa Schile, also known as Scirpus. Scirpus is a former member of Black Rock City’s Department of Public Works, has degrees in Ecology and Botany, a Ph.D in Environmental Science, Policy, and Management with a specialty in wetlands, and most recently finished up a stint with the Smithsonian. In other words: she’s the perfect person to help us get a lay of the land out at Fly Ranch.
As much as one might think Fly Ranch is a barren desert landscape, the reality is quite different. As one of the largest water reservoirs in northern Nevada, there is an astonishing amount of biodiversity on the property. So far we’ve identified 107 different plants, with quite a few more still unidentified.
The property also includes tamarisk, an invasive species that chokes out other vegetative life. We will eventually need to address this issue. Conservationists have successfully introduced the northern tamarisk beetle to some habitats, which feeds on the plant, as a means to combat the plant.
In April, we set up a few wildlife cameras to begin identifying fauna and to gather information about the patterns of various animals on the property. So far, aided by the cameras, we have seen rabbits, deer, antelope, coyotes, horses, foxes, and falcons, and have identified 41 kinds of birds that visit the property, including eagles, geese, swans, and pelicans.
That’s right. Pelicans. In the Black Rock Desert. It kind of blew us away, too.
We will updating our site as we learn more about the plants and animals of Fly Ranch, and as Scirpus continues her fellowship, she will be blogging about her experiences on the Fly Ranch section of the Burning Man Journal.
There is a lot of water on Fly Ranch. Historically, this water was moved around through the use of ditches, rudimentary pipes and hoses. Some of this water has been sold to Burning Man for dust abatement in the streets of BRC (yes, those water trucks). The Fly Ranch team now has an opportunity to re-examine this relationship with a greater consideration for what’s best for the local environment instead of seeking to provide resource at the lowest financial cost.
Some of the projects we’re interested in exploring with water include:
- Transporting water to BRC in a way that doesn’t require trucks driving near the geyser
- Exploring subtler methods for moving the water around the property
- Collecting and storing water year-round for use by Fly Ranch and Black Rock City
- Developing water treatment tools to provide drinking water for the local area
To do this, we need water rights. In the West, water is allocated based on who started using the water first. There are three tiers of water within legal water use: First, surface water, which we have an abundance of and need to continue putting this water to use in order to maintain our right (which we are currently doing by watering the roads of BRC.) Second, are wells with drinking water. There are some old nonfunctioning wells on Fly Ranch and in early June we found one working well east of the fenced pasture near the Hualapai playa.
Finally, there are aquifer rights that we currently do not have but could provide a substantial amount of drinkable water with minor treatment. Maintaining and increasing available water will not only benefit Fly Ranch and Black Rock City, but could become increasingly important in a changing world where water is becoming more scarce.
On the experimental end of things, one unconventional option could be to partner with or enter a team in the $1.75M XPRIZE water competition. Researchers have been improving the technology used to gather some of the 3 quadrillion gallons of water in the atmosphere, and Fly Ranch could be a testing ground. We think that’d be pretty cool.
There is also the geyser, as well as the hot springs pools, which are incredible features for observing as well as soaking in. At this point, we don’t expect that people will be able to soak in the hot springs on any kind of public visits. We don’t have insurance for swimming, and need to be very considerate about the potential impact of visitors on erosion. These are dynamic ecosystems and pools. We need to take care of them.
We will need to find a way to preserve the ecological integrity of the geyser and make enjoying the hot springs sustainable. We can do something like Esalen or Orr Hot Springs and run the water through a series of small tubs. We could create a series of larger pools like Harbin Hot Springs. We will want to find a process that cleans that water and provides more control of temperature. The below graph gives a sense of the range of water temperatures found in one of the main hot spring pools.
There is also a lot we can begin exploring in terms of geothermal or aquaponic potential for the site. We can engage people who sign up for alternative energy, architecture, environmental stewardship, production and operations site specific installations, and sustainability and land use to get their perspectives.
In the coming months and years (because honestly, projects of this magnitude take time), there will be many opportunities to participate in visioning the future of Fly Ranch. We will need your time, energy, expertise, and ideas. Of course this project will also need financial support to realize and explore new ideas, if you feel inspired to contribute to Fly Ranch, you can always donate to the project.
As of June 2017, we’ve had almost 3,000 people sign up to get involved with the project through our Participation page. You can see a breakdown of their areas of interest here:
Some of these groups, like Outreach & Communications we’re going to be able to reach out in the earlier phases of the project. Others, like Gatherings & Events, will come later. If you want to raise your hand (yay, do-ocracy!) to be involved in visioning the the future of Fly Ranch, or want to offer support now, head over to the participation form.
All politics is local, and every step we take or dollar we spend is an opportunity to build and strengthen our relationships in the area surrounding Fly Ranch. Burning Man has owned land in the area since 2001 and is used to being a neighbor and a participating member of the local community.
We look forwarding to deepening our relationships with Empire, Gerlach, the Paiute Tribe and local property owners. We already have members of our staff contributing to the Gerlach/Empire Citizen Advisory Board, the Gerlach economic development committee, the Gerlach Volunteer Fire Department and the Gerlach General Improvement District, where we discuss our ongoing work in the area. Burning Man co-founder and Gerlach resident Will Roger is on the board of the nonprofit Friends of the Black Rock High Rock environmental conservation group, and he is vice-chair of the BLM Sub Resource Advisory Committee. We have met with the company that recently purchased the town of Empire.
While Black Rock City has an enormous positive economic impact on Northern Nevada that is concentrated in late summer, activity at Fly Ranch would create an even greater economic benefit that extends year-round. On average, people spend roughly $581 on a four-day trip to the Gerlach area with lodging, food, and entertainment. Not everyone will stay that long in the area, so let’s be safe and say each person spends $100 per trip. At 50 people per week, that’s an additional $260K per year for the area. Not bad.
Local residents have been enjoying Fly Ranch and the geyser for decades. Some are excited for the potential for sustained economic benefit that our project may bring while others are worried about impact on local infrastructure, environment, or culture. Working closely with with all of the local communities early and with clear messaging about our intentions, and with an open channel for future communication, is key. We’ll engage people who sign up for “local community engagement” to assist us with these efforts.
In order to communicate and coordinate effectively, technology tools will be an important part the next phase of this project. We plan to leverage technologically progressive resources and, whenever possible, use inclusive and open-source tools.
For community engagement and idea sharing, we’re examining Discourse. Companies like Twitter, GitHub, and Change.org use Discourse. Interested folks can write proposals, mention users, tag, vote, and discuss. People could submit a project idea with scope, budget, and team. Others could join and support these ideas. We also like Discourse because:
- It would be fast, easy, and cheap to set up (a week or two of development, $200/mo)
- The best ideas would rise to the top, and we could understand preferences
- People can navigate based on top, latest, or specific categories
- In comes with built-in translation capabilities for various languages
- People can include images, tag users, and use other familiar social features
Burning Man’s technical team is building Burner Profiles into an OAuth toolkit. We hope to soon use Burner Profiles as a login across all Burning Man sites and on Fly Ranch projects, including Discourse. Below is the Twitter developer community page. Imagine threaded, ranked, categorized discussions like this, but about all the ideas and topics we’re discussing for Fly Ranch.
Using a project management tool openly and transparently will give the public insight into planning and and operation, and hopefully encourage people to get involved in the areas they are most interested in.
The world does not currently have a great tool or process for solving large-scale collective action problems (e.g., environment, space, political campaigns). Perhaps through the process of the large scale collaborative project that is Fly Ranch, we can use the lessons, theory, methods, and outcomes and tools that we discover along the way to help create a tool that can work for other projects. As always, the process here is just as valuable as the product.
“Plan for what is difficult when it is easy, do what is great while it is small. The most difficult things in the world must be done while they are still easy, the greatest things in the world must be done while they are still small. For this reason, sages never do what is great and that is why they can achieve that greatness.” -Sun Tzu
Getting the small details correct and planning done right will help us get the big parts right: building coalitions, anticipating obstacles, winning over opposition, and noticing what’s unfolding. Doing a few working trips in the fall would give us practice organizing volunteers, funding a trip, and managing legal issues, all of which we’d learn from. If we want to be on Fly Ranch sustainably for any longer than a few hours, we must establish a few key pieces temporary infrastructure. The most important of those? Toilets.
In 2014 there were 1,600 porta-potties in Black Rock City. With that has come an incredible amount of effort to set up, process, and then dispose of waste. We now have an opportunity to reconsider our relationship to that basic human function. Plus, plastic porta potties at Fly Ranch kinda of kill the whole “natural beauty” vibe of fly Ranch. Seriously.
Compostable toilets set us up for successfully scaling disposal, and for creating value through a closed loop system as opposed to another cost. It makes it clear that we intend to create a sustainable, self-sufficient project and be responsible for the land we are now stewards of. Without knowing what uses will be intended for the space, we shouldn’t do anything with certainty or permanence, so we’re first looking into mobile composting toilet units.
If we wanted to host groups for any type of gathering, we will need at least a few temporary structures. Shiftpods could work. Yurts could do the trick. Shipping containers could also be an option. DPW has been looking at deployable temporary housing for playa living, and we can learn from that research. Any structures erected for more than a few days at Fly Ranch will need to handle extreme temperatures, rain, snow, and hail. See Weather.com’s report for Gerlach gives a sense of the conditions we’ll be dealing with.
Toilets and temporary shelters will be the first human infrastructure that we bring to the land. Let’s do it with care. With our first projects, we’re hoping to engage artists, demonstrate a commitment to sustainability, and explore a natural aesthetic appropriate for the stunning beauty of the Black Rock Desert.