Skip to main content

Bliss Life

be bold. be brave. be remembered.

Friends of Black Rock-High Rock –The Protectors of Sacred Land

By Stacey Wittek

Each year, more than 70,000 “burners” flock to the Black Rock Desert to spend a week off the grid, seeking to live for a week in a pure, carefree, communal, and uninhibited way. But, year-round, members of the non-profit organization Friends of Black Rock-High Rock work tirelessly to protect the sacred land that Burning Man calls home. Bliss Life met with the Executive Director of Friends of Black Rock-High Rock, Stacey Wittek, to learn more about the organization and its mission.

BL: Tell us a little about Friends of Black Rock-High Rock. What are the primary goals of your organization?

SW: Friends of Black Rock-High Rock provides vital information and support to visitors around the world fascinated by the vastness and desolate beauty of the 1.2 million acre National Conservation Area. Our members and volunteers are environmental scientists, kite-boarding enthusiasts, campers, star-gazers, conservationists, historians and burners. We work closely with the Burning Man Project, Bureau of Land Management and other partners to promote land stewardship and Leave No Trace principals. Our mission is to connect, protect and inspire.

BL: What is your connection with Burning Man? When/How did it all begin?

SW: We are celebrating our 20th anniversary this year! Our origins are deeply entwined with Burning Man. From our start in 1999, our board and members saw that the interest and use in the Black Rock area was growing at a phenomenal rate and that the protection and support of this national treasure was extraordinarily important. Burning Man came to the playa in 1990. Friends of Black Rock-High Rock started in 1999 and the Black Rock-High Rock Canyon Emigrant Trail Conservation Area (1.2 million acres!) was created in 2000.

Recently, in 2017 we began working with Burning Man Project to provide a 3-hour guided nature walks of Fly Ranch-Fly Geyser. Our walks explore a portion of the stunning 3,800-acre property and give participants an immersive experience with the vast and dynamic environment that includes Fly Geyser, a stunning geothermal geyser.

BL: What makes Black Rock Desert special and what is Burning Man’s impact on the Black Rock-High Rock area?

SW: A lot of people who go out there think it's a tough place, indestructible. But actually the desert is far more complicated. There are little ecosystems that are really unique--from the dace fish that live in the hot springs to the fairy shrimp that requires the perfect conditions to emerge. Here you will find the Applegate Emigrant Trail that, because of its remoteness, is virtually the same as it was a 180 years ago. A lot of our core mission is to make people aware of both the durable and the sublime aspects of place.

We have over 4,000 people visit our center where we hope we can pass on good tips on how to be a responsible user of resources. Every year Burning Man Project has the opportunity to reach over 70,000 with that same message. I think Burning Man is the most extraordinary experiment in Public Land use in history. It is fascinating what this multi-decade event can do and has to say about long term sustainability and civic engagement.

BL: What do you love about Burning Man?

SW: Wow, that is not easy to condense into words. Despite its critics and criticisms deserve or undeserved there is real magic in the event. Not the fairy dust kind but the kind that might have some truths that will help us create a better, more beautiful and just world. Sometimes you gotta separate the wheat from the chaff. Just go. A couple of times.

BL: What is the lifespan of Burning Man? Has BM found its forever home in the Black Rock Desert?

SW: I have yet to meet anyone within Burning Man leadership that has shown anything but passion and respect for this landscape and a real desire to make this little experiment in the big desert work forever.

BL: Tell us more about the town of Gerlach, it’s culture, it’s people, etc.

SW: Gerlach is WAY more than a little blip on your way to the desert. A lot of the people in Gerlach have been stewards of Black Rock long before we became an organization, and long before Burning Man came around. Tough, self-reliant, and the best kind of strange.

BL: What are some of the key philanthropic, eco-friendly, and charitable giving initiatives that Friends of Black Rock-High Rock are doing to make a difference?

SW: Friends of Black Rock-High Rock run about 20 events each year that give people the opportunity to lend a hand with conservation initiatives, learn about the environment and connect with the landscape. This includes Hwy 447 clean up, Guru Rd Restoration, Father’s Day Trego Hotsprings Restoration Campout and the Black Rock Rendezvous. In August each year we hold the Perseids Meteor Shower Campout--this year we had high powered telescopes and astronomers from Fleishmann Planetarium spend the evening with us. That, and a fabulous paella dinner for all. We hold a number of events in Reno too. Last weekend we worked with Common Cider for the Black Rock Bike Auction at the Eddy which featured bikes decorated by local groups and donated by Kiwanis and Reno Bike Project. Common Cider's special labeled Black Rock Apple Saison is available at Reno and Sparks Costco locations. Please ask for it at BevMo, Raley's and Total Wine. A percent of proceeds will help Friends of Black Rock-High Rock in our mission.

BL: Anything else interesting, unconventional, surprising, exciting, or little known facts that you’d like to share that we may not be aware of?

SW: If you are passing through Gerlach on your way to Burning Man please stop by and visit our Last Chance Outpost and let Judi Morales, aka “Running with Scissors,” connect you to your glamorous guerrilla self (wait, we have an actual gorilla costume as well). She will have her own awesome assemblage of outfits but also any last-minute needs from aspirin to organic lubricant.

Sign up for our newsletter to get to know our events. Better yet, become a member.