Rainbow Gathering in Colorado lacks one color -
Writers on the Range
July 9, 2006
we tell folks that we have become the unwitting
hosts for the Rainbow Family's annual gathering, the
first response is "the who?"
As it turns out, some 20,000
Rainbows have gathered in Big Red Park, north of
Steamboat Springs, Colo., in the Routt National
Forest. Their Web site, welcomehome.org, styles them
"the largest non-organization of non-members in the
My husband and I, local
ranchers, are hosts because this year's get-together
has taken over our sheep-grazing permit. Rainbow
spokesman Bodhi, from New York City, said he 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 can it be,
we asked the Forest Service, that many thousands of
people can come in, camp on a riparian area for
weeks and weeks, and not worry about resource
That is but one of the rubs.
Since 1972, Rainbow Family
members have gathered 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, have
several viewpoints. We live under the long shadow of
the Forest Service, and, I have to admit, some of us
are secretly cheering the Rainbows' defiance of the
federal agency's many rules and regulations. If we
could only gather 20,000 of our closest friends!
We also feel invaded. Contrary
to Rainbow public relations, most of the folks we
see are overwhelmingly white, mostly unwashed and as
likely to wear Goth black as rainbow rights. They
profess peace and love, but the most visible public
presence is of panhandlers, hitchhikers and numerous
dogs - heavy on the pit bulls.
It is a truly American
experience. The Rainbow Family, with its claim of no
organization, has a better-run society than many
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 gauntlet past a heavy federal
law enforcement presence and the creepy "A camp,"
revealed a mixed group of mostly friendly people.
Many are trying to live their ideals. On July 4,
they gather to pray for peace, a worthy cause
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-type bus 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. Since then, sympathies are not running
high for the Rainbow members.
For everyone who lives in the
area, fire danger at the gathering remains a real
concern. The site has one narrow access road. It is
very near the 1997 Routt blodown, which left
thousands of acres of downed timber, and the 2002
Hinman fire. The encampment is surrounded by red
trees - some 70 percent dead from beetle kill. Yet
the Rainbows have dozens of open fires even though
Routt County has enacted a fire ban.
Meanwhile, the Rainbow Family
and the Forest Service are at 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? We expect the Rainbow group to
live 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 the grazing animals, domestic and wild, who must
depend on this area for fall feed, will not find the
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
contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of
High Country News. She is a rancher, writer and poet
in the Little Snake River Valley near Savery,