When we tell folks that we became the unwitting hosts for the Rainbow Family’s annual gathering, the first response is "the who?" The Family’s Web site, welcomehome.org, styles the Rainbows "the largest non-organization of non-members in the world." At the beginning of July, more than 17,000 of them gathered in Big Red Park, north of Steamboat Springs, Colo., in the Routt National Forest. My husband and I, local ranchers, played hosts because this year’s get-together took over our sheep-grazing permit. Rainbow spokesman Bodhi, from New York City, said Rainbow elders chose the area because "We need a fresh water source, one main meadow that is 100 acres or larger and about 5 to 10 square miles of hippie land." Bodhi added, "We need another large meadow to accommodate thousands of vehicles."
Now, for years, we
have been told that our sheep and cows are not to "lounge" in the
riparian areas when they water. How could it be, we asked the
Forest Service, that many thousands of people could come in, camp
on a riparian area for weeks and weeks, and not worry about
That was but one of the rubs.
Since 1972, Rainbow Family members have gathered during the first
week of July. They contend, with court backing, that they are
exercising their First Amendment rights to free assembly. The U.S.
government maintains, also with court backing, that the authorities
must issue a permit and oversee the activities as they would any
other group of 75 or more.
We, the bemused locals, had
several viewpoints. We live under the long shadow of the Forest
Service, and, I have to admit, some secretly cheered the
Rainbows’ defiance of the federal agency’s many rules
and regulations. If we could only gather 17,000 of our closest
We also felt invaded. Contrary to Rainbow public
relations, most of the folks we saw were white, unwashed and as
likely to wear Goth black as rainbow brights. They professed peace
and love, but the most visible public presence was of panhandlers,
hitchhikers and numerous dogs — heavy on the pit bulls.
It was a truly American experience. The Rainbow Family,
with its claim of no organization, has a better-run society than
many Third World countries. The advance "seed team" organized
kitchens, water treatment, slit latrines, a first-aid tent, a
children’s area, and an "A camp" for troublesome heavy
A visit to the encampment, which involved
running the gantlet past a heavy federal law enforcement presence
and the creepy A camp, revealed a mixed group of mostly friendly
people. Many were trying to live their ideals. Each July 4,
Rainbows gather to pray for peace, a worthy cause indeed.
The Forest Service brought in their special-incident team, lots of
law enforcement, and an enthusiasm for citing people for a variety
of violations. Early on, a special court was set up in tiny Clark,
Colo., to handle hundreds of citations after some Rainbow folks
pelted Forest Service agents with sticks and rocks.
our very rural community, a school-bus-type vehicle headed for the
gathering swerved in front of a truck hauling gravel to the local
trophy ranch, causing the driver, a local, to plunge off an
embankment. After that, sympathies did not run high for the
Fire danger at the gathering created a real
concern. The site has one narrow access road. It is very near the
1997 Routt blowdown, which left thousands of acres of downed
timber, and the 2002 Hinman fire. The encampment was surrounded by
red trees — some 70 percent dead from beetle kill. Yet the
Rainbows had dozens of open fires even though Routt County had
enacted a fire ban.
Meanwhile, the Rainbow Family and the
Forest Service reached their annual impasse over a permit. The
truth is, short of bringing in the National Guard and risking a
Waco-type conflagration, the government will not choose to stop a
Where does this leave us, ranchers who
have a permit with rights and responsibilities? The Rainbow group
lived up to its reputation for thoroughly cleaning up after itself,
filling in its latrines and fire pits, and hauling off trash.
Unfortunately, no one can quickly restore the trampled meadows and
streams, and those grazing animals, domestic and wild, that depend
on this area for fall feed will not find the grass they need.
The First Amendment protects the right of all of us to
gather, from the Jarbidge Shovel Brigade to the recent parades of
immigrants in cities across the country. But what color is this
Rainbow? Many hues, none of them green.