When we tell folks that we have become the unwitting hosts for the Rainbow Family's annual gathering, the first response is "the who?"

As it turns out, some 20,000 Rainbows have gathered in Big Red Park, north of Steamboat Springs, Colo., in the Routt National Forest. Their Web site, welcomehome.org, styles them "the largest non-organization of non-members in the world."

My husband and I, local ranchers, are hosts because this year's get-together has taken over our sheep-grazing permit. Rainbow spokesman Bodhi, from New York City, said he 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 can it be, we asked the Forest Service, that many thousands of people can come in, camp on a riparian area for weeks and weeks, and not worry about resource damage?

That is but one of the rubs.

Since 1972, Rainbow Family members have gathered 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, have several viewpoints. We live under the long shadow of the Forest Service, and, I have to admit, some of us are secretly cheering the Rainbows' defiance of the federal agency's many rules and regulations. If we could only gather 20,000 of our closest friends!

We also feel invaded. Contrary to Rainbow public relations, most of the folks we see are overwhelmingly white, mostly unwashed and as likely to wear Goth black as rainbow brights. They profess peace and love, but the most visible public presence is of panhandlers, hitchhikers and numerous dogs — heavy on the pit bulls.

It is 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 are trying to live their ideals. On July 4, they 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-type bus 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. Since then, sympathies are not running high for the Rainbow members.

For everyone who lives in the area, fire danger at the gathering remains 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 is surrounded by red trees — some 70 percent dead from beetle kill. Yet the Rainbows have dozens of open fires even though Routt County has enacted a fire ban.

Meanwhile, the Rainbow Family and the Forest Service are at 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? We expect the Rainbow group to live 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 the grazing animals, domestic and wild, who must depend on this area for fall feed, will not find the grass restored.

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 contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. She is a rancher, writer and poet in the Little Snake River Valley near Savery, Wyoming.