Guest commentary: To Rainbow Family, who speaks for nature?

Michelle O. Stewart
Guest commentary

In the same year the Rainbow Family established their non-organization, 1972, the legal scholar Christopher Stone advanced a provocative argument that has merits pertaining to current concerns about Rainbow Family’s plan to occupy Adams Park in their 2022 gathering.

Based on the premise that nature has value, just as people do, and recognizing that nature was being impacted by people and industry without repercussion, Stone proposed: What if nature were granted the legal status of personhood? Might that change the inherent privileging of humans over nature? Knowing both the unorthodoxy and relevance of the idea to the broader U.S. Environmental Movement, Stone wrote: “The fact is, that each time there is a movement to confer rights onto some new ‘entity,’ the proposal is bound to sound odd or frightening or laughable. This is partly because until the rightless thing receives its rights, we cannot see it as anything but a thing for the use of “us” — those who are holding rights at the time.”

Why Stone’s proposal matters now, 50 years later, is because the Rainbow Family Gathering of Tribes’ 50-year anniversary marks yet another case where nature is only valued as a thing to be used by those who hold rights. Rainbow Family is exercising their right to gather on public lands for their use, which they define as “humans attempting to live in peaceful community with each other,” showcasing yet again that humans can triumph over nature because nature has no rights.

From the position of a regional environmental nonprofit, I ask Rainbow Family this question: Who speaks for nature when you choose your gathering locations? Did you ask the nonhuman Adams Park residents’ permission to use and damage irreversibly their habitat for your 2022?

When choosing locations for gatherings, Rainbow Family seeks a “meadow spacious enough for thousands of people” so they can “come together to collectively pray for world peace.”

Not all “meadows” are the same. Some meadows — like those characteristic to Adams Park and nearby Slater and California Park — cannot tolerate significant use and impact. These three “meadows” you will impact for your gathering contain the highest known levels of wildlife biodiversity on the Routt National Forest. Impacting this area has grave consequences that cannot readily be repaired.

Adams Park, the place of gathering is bordered by Slater and California Park, the latter two of which were designated as Special Interest Areas by the US Forest Service in 1998 because of the area’s geological, historical, scenic and zoological values, including the high diversity of threatened, endangered, and sensitive plant and animal species present in the area. The area is unique for its high-elevation rangelands (sagebrush-bunchgrass communities) that are surrounded by forested mountains (a mixture of conifer forests and aspen with forb associations). These rich SIA ecosystems support high wildlife biodiversity, including a number of species currently on Colorado’s Special Concern list.

The current nonhuman “residents” of Adams, Slater and California Park thus include: all three species of grouse native to northwest Colorado, including the Columbian sharp-tailed grouse, greater sage-grouse and dusky grouse. Greater sandhill cranes also breed in the park, and the habitat there helped support their population recovery across northwest Colorado. The area is important for larger mammals, such as elk, mule deer, pronghorn antelope and black bear. Six named tributaries drain southwest from California Park into Elkhead Creek and the Little Snake River and then into the Yampa River. These streams support Colorado River cutthroat trout and a boreal toad population. The area is a center of diversity in Colorado for amphibians and reptiles.

Due to the high biodiversity value of California Park and Slater Park and past human impacts to the area, the Forest Service, in conjunction with local conservation organizations, has undertaken and planned a number of restoration projects. Trout Unlimited has partnered with USFS to restore stretches of Armstrong and First Creek and to install new culverts that enable fish and amphibian passage. Yampa Valley Sustainability Council is partnering on tree planting and riparian fencing projects. This summer we have planned to launch a program with local volunteers to restore degraded wet meadow complexes to improve wildlife habitat as well as increase water and carbon storage.

Rainbow Family, since you have selected such sensitive and diversity-rich “meadows” for your gathering, how will you minimize your impacts? If you expand your “all are welcome”  philosophy to include nonhuman nature, how might your decisions and actions this year change? 

Rainbow Family gatherings are notorious for off-leash dogs during gatherings and abandoned dogs after. Off-leash and abandoned dogs will chase, eat and destroy elk calves and bird populations for many years to come. Would you consider banning dogs at the gathering since you are holding your gathering near SIAs?

How will you source and use water during your gathering? Will Rainbow Family negatively impact some of the most important native cutthroat trout populations in the state while they bathe and gather water in self-serving ways? Or will you lessen stream and water resource impacts by requiring Rainbow Family to bring in their personal water supply and ban access to streams for bathing and collecting water?

How will you handle your pollution, including light, noise and waste? The wildlife and plant diversity in the region has thrived because of its distance from populated areas. Will you respect the nonhuman residents in California Park by banning fires, drums, lights at night and open defecation? Can 20,000-30,000 people “leave no trace?”

The work of our regional environmental nonprofits centers on a shared mission to elevate the value of nature and ensure that our environment is at the decision-making table in our social, economic and political lives. We are concerned and disappointed that Rainbow Family is using such a sensitive and valuable place for their gathering because the looming impacts to plants and wildlife are inevitable given the sheer size of the gathering.

Rainbow Family, does nature deserve a place in your decision-making process? If the plants and animals of Adams Park had rights, how you would you ensure your gathering minimizes harm at every juncture? We hope that you will seek out and follow recommendations to minimize your impacts to the environmental values of such a special place.

Michelle O. Stewart is the executive director of the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council.

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