Volume at Rainbow Gathering sparks environmental concerns

Participants in the Rainbow Gathering will use this large meadow near U.S. Forest Service Trail 1144 in Adams Park as a place for thousands of people to circle for silent meditation and a prayer for peace on the morning of July 4.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Officials with the U.S. Forest Service National Rainbow Incident Management Team say Rainbow Family participants have done a good job with site clean-up and rehabilitation after the past several years of large gatherings on National Forest lands.

While repeatedly stressing the 50th anniversary Rainbow Gathering in North Routt County is unauthorized and unpermitted, Forest Service officials are rapidly completing a specific resource protection plan to help direct the Rainbows in Adams Park. Forest Service Public Information Officer Hilary Markin said Forest Service law enforcement officials and resource advisers will be on site to help the Rainbows follow the resource plan.

“The Rainbow Family does do a lot of work to rehabilitate their impacts, but based on past experience, we know there will be additional work likely to be done,” said Medicine Bow-Routt National Forests Supervisor Russ Bacon.

With an estimated 1,000 campers already on site on Tuesday, June 21, at the location about 25 miles north of Hayden, leaders of local nonprofit groups are concerned about the impact that an estimated 10,000 attendees may have on the forest environment. Top concerns ranged from potential wildfire danger to wildlife-human encounters, to the volume of human waste in the forest.

Incident Commander Russell Harris, in his fourth year in the role, noted, “In general, they work with us well with protecting the resources, and they are very good at rehabilitation. We work in conjunction with law enforcement investigation side of the team to ensure they leave the area as pristine as possible once this incident is over.”

Officials cite annual concerns for the national gatherings including resource impacts such as fire danger, water quality degradation, compacted soil, sanitation issues, and disruptions to threatened plant and animal species.

Markin said Forest Service officials believe Rainbow Family elders have continued to improve during recent gatherings with education of attendees, internal self-monitoring and following design protocols set up in the USFS resource protection plan.

For Rainbow Gathering information

U.S. Forest Service officials encourage community members to stay up-to-date on the Rainbow Gathering through the website, which also includes a Q&A section, or to submit questions via email or phone 970-364-2201.

On Tuesday evening, the Incident Management Team presented a virtual, public meeting where 143 people signed in to listen. Markin showed photos from past national gatherings in northern Wisconsin in 2019 and near Taos in 2021. She said those gatherings attracted about 7,000 attendees each year, but this summer’s 50th anniversary gathering is expected to draw a larger crowd.

Currently, no fire bans are in place in Routt County, and the Craig Interagency Dispatch Center currently rates that area, including Adams Park, as “high” for fire danger. Officials said weather conditions and emergency situations could lead to fire bans or temporary road closures during the event.

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The Rainbow Family has volunteer crews who work on site preparations such as water, outdoor kitchens, latrines, security and medical care. The water team is piping water from nearby springs, and state water resources officials note there is no current call from water rights holders in the Adams Park area.

The Rainbow team assigned to sanitation builds slit-trench latrines or box toilets that are later buried and rehabbed with materials such as wood chips. Markin said the USFS will work with county and state water quality officials to test water sources for public safety during and after the gathering.

The expected high volume of visiting campers coming from across the country for the unpermitted event has many local residents and groups concerned.

“The overwhelming issue mentioned by Routt County residents is the very large environmental and wildlife impact of any gathering this size, along with the fire risk, not the Rainbow Family per se,” said Larry Desjardin, president of Keep Routt Wild. “My overall concern is the impact the enormous size of the gathering has on this area of the forest, including sanitation concerns, fire concerns, and that this is occurring in an important elk calving area.”

A large bear paw print was seen Friday, June 17, 2022, along U.S. Forest Service Trail 1144, which leads to the main meadow for this year’s 50th anniversary Rainbow Gathering in Adams Park.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Just last year, the Forest Service completed a project to restore 3 miles of stream, more than 7 acres of riparian habitat and 1.5 acres of wetlands in the native species-rich California Park area. The Yampa Valley Sustainability Council has worked on such projects in the past as well.

“We hope that you will seek out and follow recommendations to minimize your impacts to the environmental values of such as special place,” said Yampa Valley Sustainability Council Executive Director Michelle Stewart.

Longtime Rainbow Gathering participant Brightwings, who goes by her Rainbow name and is the daughter of an original Rainbow founder, said during an on-site visit June 17 that the peace-promoting group does not intend to harm the land.

“We’ll put it back as good or better than we found it. We aren’t here to mess things up. Our people try really hard to respect the Earth,” Brightwings said.

Rancher Meghan Lally, whose family-owned Ladder Ranch stretches from Carbon County, Wyoming, into Routt County, said her observations from the 2006 Rainbow Gathering in Big Red Park in north Routt County was relatively positive. Her family had a Forest Service grazing permit for sheep in Big Red Park and found less trash and deadfall after the gathering than before. The ranchers needed to skip one year of grazing in one section of their permit, but thanks to wet years, that section of grazing recuperated by the second summer, Lally said.

“They left things very clean. They cleared up a lot of the deadfall,” Lally said. “They had a crew that stayed for two weeks after, and cleaned everything up. It was a fairly small area that they impacted heavily. That area gets so much traditional recreation impact anyway.”

Bacon ended the online meeting by noting, “We are working together to address and mitigate the issues and resource concerns and the public health issues as much as possible.”

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