There was no green in this Rainbow gathering

  • Sharon Salisbury O'Toole


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,, 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 resource damage?

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 friends!

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 drinkers.

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.

In 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 Rainbows.

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 Rainbow Gathering.

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.

Sharon Salisbury O’Toole is a rancher, writer and poet in the Little Snake River Valley near Savery, Wyoming.

Aug 08, 2006 11:21 AM

Echoes of the19th Century Eurocentric pastoralist's complaints about tribal encamptments on usurped land. Their value system held that their use of resources for exotic domestic livestock was a God and Government given right and that they should be afforded protection.

Aug 10, 2006 11:33 AM

Ranchers enjoy use of public lands most of the year and make a profit while doing so. Movements such as the Rainbow Family are not above criticism, but their success benefits society in the longrun by exhibiting, through use, that public lands are for everyone. When more parties are involved in the public land debate it acts to broaden the scope of land use consideration so that perhaps one day policies will be inclusive of those other than miners, ranchers, or developers. Mrs. O'Toole's complaints, however warranted, sound like a selfish indulgence that was suprisingly published by HCN. Ranchers have it tough, a huge understatement, but this is the wrong outlet for seeking change in public land use policy.

it must be wonderful
Mar 10, 2010 11:51 PM
it must be just wonderful to live in a "world" where the rights our forefathers fought for only apply to you and others like you that make money off them. It was my understanding that the national forests where to be set aside for use by all americans not just ranchers.
 sure there are assholes that hide behind the rainbow flag just like there are tyrants that hide behind the flag of national security but thats not exactly the point is it now?

  im a hard working person hell my mother even drives a semitruck, and for the record no i wouldnt be happy with the person that run that driver off the road if my mother had been in the truck, but just because the feds are stupid about your livestock sleeping by a creek doesnt mean that the rainbows should getting anger from you for it.
  hell in my opinion you should be happy they at least cleaned up after themselves the last time ranchers camped on my land they left trash all over the aera they camped in but i still let hunters go out on my back 40.
 but i say again it must be wonderful to have such a narrow view of the wide wide world arround you.
where do you live?
Mar 25, 2010 05:23 PM
I am curious to know where you all are from. If you are Colorado natives that use our public land? Or do you morn that you live in a concrete jungle of noise and business suits. I do not disagree with the Rainbow Families practices, nor the fact that it is any ones land to enjoy. But, ranchers and farmers are what keep our small town economy going. Sorry if we live life differently, then sitting in a cubical surfing the internet all day. I do not run a ranch nether does my family, but I would be pretty pissed off if a group of 17,000 trampled the natural streams that live stock and wild animals use to live. Mind you that it is the farmers and ranchers that provide your supermarkets with fresh meat and vegetables. So yes it is a wonderful world to live in. I suggest you try it some time.