Forest officials divided over effect of Rainbow Family gathering on Routt National Forest
No matter how careful they are, a group of 15,000 people can’t help but leave a mark on the Routt National Forest, environmental officials said this week.
The annual gathering of the Rainbow Family of Living Light ended July 7. As most of the Rainbow participants pack up and head out of the camping area near Big Red park in North Routt County, 35 miles north of Steamboat Springs, local and state environmental officials are assessing the collective footprint left on the site by 30,000 human feet and more than 100 dogs.
A cleanup crew of more than 300 Rainbow participants has remained at the camping area to remove trash and plant seed on compacted trails, but officials say that despite the environmental ethic and stewardship practiced by participants, the enormous size of the gathering means the area could need a significant amount of time to recover.
“It’s a real eye-opener,” said Rocky Smith of the Denver-based organization Colorado Wild. Smith joined a crew of more than 10 environmental officials who surveyed the site with U.S. Forest Service officers last week.
“The conclusion I reach is that there were just too many people out there,” Smith said. “They really caused quite a bit of impact. I have nothing against (Rainbow participants) or their lifestyle, I just wish they would camp in smaller numbers so they would not have these huge effects.”
Denise Ottaviano, a Forest Service spokeswoman from Washington, D.C. to help manage the event, estimated that Rainbow gatherers created “40 to 50 miles” of new trails by walking around the site.
Mike Zopf, director of the Routt County Department of Environmental Health, said that although the new trails and tramped earth are an “unfortunate reality” of the gathering, Rainbow participants deserve credit for their conservation efforts during and after the event, which officially began July 1 but began drawing campers to the area in early June.
“For the amount of time that people were up there, I thought the impact was pretty small,” Zopf said. “In a year or two or three, I don’t think anybody will notice any difference.”
Zopf has worked in county environmental health since 1977. He said the Rainbow gathering was the largest event he has dealt with. While surveying the site, Zopf said he saw no evidence of hazardous waste — trash or human — and noticed that a stream near the camping area appeared to be free of sediment, which would indicate lingering bacteria.
“There was really no on-site waste disposal — everything that I saw was carried off the site, in terms of solid waste,” Zopf said. “As for human waste, they had soil that they placed over it, and they were also using hydrated lime, which is typically used to help the decomposition process.”
Zopf said he plans to conduct bacteriological tests on water samples from the area.
Longtime Rainbow participant Charles Lesley Winslow, 55, is part of the cleanup crew. A tall, burly man with a long beard, Winslow said the crew has spent the past week taking bags of trash to Dumpsters provided by the county, re-seeding compacted trails, taking down structures and filling in holes dug for fire pits.
“We’re trying to leave (the area) as good as we found it, if not better,” he said. “That’s what we do.”
Local Forest Service official Kim Vogel said that before the gathering, parts of the area were open for hiking, off-road vehicle use, camping, horseback riding and “vegetation management” uses such as grazing for livestock.
The Routt National Forest encompasses 1.2 million acres, or 1,874 square miles. Rainbow participants camped on an area of about 4 or 5 square miles.
“It will be real interesting to see what it looks like a year from now,” Smith said. “The key thing will be the Forest Service keeping motorcycles and all-terrain vehicles off the trails (Rainbow participants) created, and that will be tough to do. But we’ll see what happens.”
— To reach Mike Lawrence, call 871-4203 or e-mail email@example.com
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