Environmental Stewardship

The plants, animals, water and artifacts of Fly Ranch.

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.

In June of 2018, Burning Man’s first Land Fellow, Lisa “Scirpus” Beers,  completed a 14-month residency on Fly Ranch to help develop a preliminary environmental baseline for the property and coordinate the inaugural scientific and academic projects on the property. Her work is instrumental to our current understanding of the land we are now stewards of. In addition to her ongoing blog series about experiencing Fly Ranch through the five senses, her data include:

The geyser itself is not entirely naturally occurring. It’s the result of 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”.

For at least the last 20 years, Fly Ranch has been optimized for the water and as a tourist destination, in ways that have sometimes been to the detriment of the land and its inhabitants.

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.

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 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. Items like broken glass should 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 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. Burning Man uses water from Fly Ranch 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 greater consideration for what’s best for the local environment instead of seeking to provide a resource at the lowest financial cost.

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 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 do not have, but could provide 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.

There are also 3 geysers, as well as the hot springs pools. At this point, we have to manage expectations around soak in the hot springs. We need to be considerate about the potential for erosion. These are dynamic ecosystems and pools with small fish living in them. 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.

We can begin exploring 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.