What is the Rainbow Family Gathering? — Forest Service answers public’s burning questions

A large welcome home sign greets Roses Rainbow and Quack as they make a trip to the main meadow on June 17, 2022. Local authorities are concerned about the impacts the Rainbow Family of Living Light's annual gathering could have on the area around Adams Park with more than 10,000 people expected to gather July 1-7.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

What is the Rainbow Family Gathering? Why doesn’t the U.S. Forest Service put a stop to it? What about putting a fire ban in place or ticketing people for not having a permit?

Forest Service officials answered these and more questions at a virtual forum on Tuesday evening, June 22, as traffic through Northwest Colorado is expected to grow in the coming week while as many as 10,000 people make their way to the a remote area of the Routt National Forest known as Adams Park.

The area is about 25 miles north of Hayden, and people have started setting up various camps, water sources and kitchen areas ahead of the gathering’s peak the first week of July.

What is the Rainbow Family?

The Rainbow Family of Living Light is a group of “loose knit” people from across the country, and even the world, that have been gathering on National Forest land each summer for the last 50 years, said Hilary Markin, the U.S. Forest Service public information officer for the gathering.

“It’s kind of a group of like-minded people that like to live off the land, sometimes off the grid,” Markin said. “This gathering is the group’s annual get-together. They do have international ones as well and many forests across the country experience local gatherings.”

The group’s first gathering was in Grand County in 1972, which is why the group returned to Colorado this year for the 50th gathering. The gathering was last in Routt County in 2006 when they were in North Routt County in Big Red Park.

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Why is the Forest Service letting this gathering happen?

The gathering is not authorized by the Forest Service and is an unlawful gathering of more than 75 people, which would typically require a special-use permit from the agency.

“We have cited Rainbow Family members in the past for failing to obtain a permit, but it’s been a bit of a mixed bag in terms of our success in managing that,” said Russ Bacon, forest supervisor for the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest. “As we are here in the heat of the moment, the focus for us is going to be on resource protection and public health and safety.”

Bacon said the group asserts that they have no one that can speak for anyone else, and therefore has no one that could be the steward of a potential permit. Attempts to get a permit from the group generally are not responded to, Bacon said.

“We really do have a mixed track record of court related precedents when it comes to the balance between First Amendment rights to peaceful assembly and a whole bunch of other rules and regulations,” Bacon said. “I wish I could say right here that it was a simple answer, that we could shut it down, but it just isn’t that easy.”

Where is the gathering happening?

The gathering is taking place in a part of the Routt National Forest known as Adams Park, which is just north of California Park and about 25 miles north of Hayden on Routt County Road 80.

The majority of the site is west of County Road 80, and encompasses between 800 and 900 acres of land. Forest Service officials actually beat Rainbows to the location when it was first announced on June 14, and have been working to map the site, outlining where various camp sites, latrines and water sources are.

Markin, who has worked on previous gatherings, said there is generally a main gate to the gathering where Rainbows will be stationed to answer questions. There will be a number of camps set up that generally surround what is know as the Main Meadow, where Rainbows will host communal meals and other events.

What is the law enforcement response?

Forest Service Special Agent Ken Pearson said he has brought in a team of about 40 law enforcement personnel that are working the gathering already.

“There will be 24/7 coverage, run in three shifts, that will consist predominantly of uniformed patrol, although we do have some criminal investigators and a number of canine officers as well,” Pearson said. “We’re managing the event — we are certainly not endorsing it by any means.”

With 10,000 people expected, how will 40 officers be able to manage that?

Pearson said he has been coordinating with local law enforcement like the Routt County Sheriff’s Office as well, and local deputies will be paired with federal law enforcement personnel at times.

“We do need backup,” Pearson said, adding that Colorado State Patrol will also help out. “We feel pretty good about our numbers and you got to understand that with 10,000 to 12,000 people, we don’t have 10,000 to 12,000 bad actors. There is only a few bad actors.”

Why hasn’t the Forest Service instituted fire restrictions in the Routt National Forest because of the gathering?

Bacon said that fire restrictions are not something that are put in place lightly and they rely on “really solid environmental criteria” that determine how much risk there is for fire on the landscape.

“Those environmental conditions are not in place, but if they do happen we will work to move into fire restrictions,” Bacon said.

Bacon said they would coordinate with partner agencies like the Bureau of Land Management and the Routt County Sheriff — the designated fire official in Routt County.

The decision to put a fire ban in place will be revisited about every week Bacon said. The Forest Service alone has the ability to put restrictions in place on the federal public land where the gathering is happening.

Routt County also has specific environmental criteria that would warrant a fire ban in unincorporated parts of the county, but not in municipalities or on federal public lands. Routt County Sheriff Garrett Wiggins would generally bring a recommendation for a fire ban to commissioners if those criteria were met. 

How is the Forest Service working with Rainbow Gathering participants to protect resources in Adams Park?

As soon as the Forest Service knew where the gathering would take place, they went to Adams Park to take stock of what specific resources were there that needed protection.

 “We actually had a team out there and we were flagging archeological sites, doing stream buffers, doing buffers around ponds, flagging wet meadows,” said Jamie Statesny, Forest Service ranger in the Yampa Ranger District.

He said the Forest Service is putting together a resource protection plan that would take a variety of factors into account like compacted soil, water quality, sanitation, disturbance of sensitive sites, disruption to endangered species or plants, and fire danger among others.

Read more about the resource protection plan here.

Do the Rainbows leave a mess when the gathering ends?

While the group says they lack leaders, the Forest Service works extensively with participants to ensure that impacts of the gathering are mitigated. After the peak gathering ends, likely around July 6 or 7, a smaller group of Rainbows stays back to rehabilitate the area.

At a gathering in Wisconsin in 2019, Markin said the Forest Service even provided seeds to plant in the meadows in an attempt to eliminate paths that had developed during the gathering.

“They work with us well with protecting the resources and they are very good at rehabilitation,” said Russ Harris, the incident commander for the gathering. “They will leave a good contingent of rehab folks back after the primary gathering is over with.”

How will 10,000 people park vehicles in a remote area of the forest?

Pearson said there are already about 130 vehicles in the Adams Park area, which likely equates to about 1,000 people.

Managing these vehicles is important to ensure there is a path for emergency vehicles to get to the gathering if necessary. Markin said the Forest Service marks off a section of parking for Forest Service personnel to access the gathering near the main gate.

“(We’re) maintaining ingress and egress so if we needed to get an ambulance or a fire truck up to the gathering site and through that area, we make sure we have a big enough travel path to do so,” Markin said.

The Forest Service has already marked “no parking” areas, Markin said. Law enforcement will be paying attention to parking, ensuring that vehicles are parked safely.

“You see some pretty creative park jobs,” Markin said.

When will the gathering end?

The Forest Service anticipates the number of people at the gathering will continue to increase over the next week, likely reaching a peak number of people the first week of July.

Markin said many of the main parts of the gathering are centered around the Fourth of July, and after that things generally taper off pretty quickly. Still, a group of them will stay for several weeks and maybe even months to work on rehabilitating the land.

“They’ve been telling everybody with the Forest Service how much pride they actually take in the clean-up aspect,” Statesny said.

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