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, 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 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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Colorado Trout Unlimited seeks an individual with successful development experience, strong interpersonal skills, and a deep commitment to coldwater conservation to serve as the organization's...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Now hiring a full-time, remote Program Director for the Society for Wilderness Stewardship! Come help us promote excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship,...
  • WYOMING COMMUNITY PARTNERSHIPS COORDINATOR
    The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership is seeking Coordinator to implement public education and advocacy campaigns in the Cowboy State to unite and amplify hunter, angler,...
  • ASSISTANT TOWN ATTORNEY
    Town of Jackson, Wyoming, $66,700 - $88,000 DOQ, full benefits. Law Degree Required. Rental housing options available. For a complete job description and to apply,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, HIke the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...