It’s always interesting to think about how much the Forest Service and nearby communities have changed in the last 50 years. Here’s a story from the Colorado Sun by Jason Blevins on the Rainbow Family Gathering, how it’s managed, and what people think about it.
The Rainbow Gathering has not said where in Colorado they plan to land for the late-June, early-July festival. But in fire-fearing mountain communities already cracking down on camping and crowds, opposition to the event is mounting, with a focus on how tens of thousands of people camping together in the woods could spark a wildfire. (This post on Reddit — Take Action Against the Rainbow Gathering — spurred 670+ comments in less than 24 hours. You can guess the tone of those comments.)
The loose structure makes it hard for federal land managers and local communities to address impacts and plan for the pending party of hippies. The Forest Service, citing online chatter and posts, suspects the group could be planning to gather in Grand County in June and July.
“The original 1972 gathering occurred up there so I think there is some potential desire to come back to Grand County for their 50th,” said Reid Armstrong with the Arapaho and Roosevelt national forests.
Without a leadership structure, the Forest Service has not been able to enforce its rules requiring a permit for gatherings of more than 75 people on public land. The agency typically writes tickets for illegal camping during big Rainbow rallies but, obviously, rangers don’t pen 10,000-plus citations at every gathering. The Rainbow group has since the 1970s argued that it has a right to assemble on public lands.
The National Forest has a national incident team that follows the Rainbow Family’s annual gatherings, which typically peak over the July 4th holiday. (Last year’s gathering was in the Carson National Forest near Taos, New Mexico.) That team — mostly Forest Service law enforcement officers — works with local communities and local police.
While the specific location won’t be known until the Rainbow Family sends a scouting party to find a spot that provides open spaces near a water supply, the Forest Service and Grand County law enforcement are aware of the possible gathering.
“We bring, historically, a lot of resources to help protect the local community and help reduce the impact on the community and natural resources,” Armstrong said.
In 2006, a scouting report from the Rainbow Gathering explored possibly returning to Grand County and identified a handful of possible locations on Forest Service land, including Church Park, Red Dirt Reservoir and Buffalo Park.
One upside for the Rainbow Gathering impact: The Forest Service knows it’s coming, unlike major wildfires like Cameron Peak and East Troublesome, the two largest wildfires in Colorado history that raged through portions of the Arapaho National Forest in 2020.
“So we can plan for it and prepare for it,” Armstrong said. “The impacts, however, can be the same. Slightly different, but the extent of the natural resource impacts can be similar, which is why we bring in an incident management team.”
The Forest Service reported about 500 members of the group remained after everyone left to fill in 200 trenches that had been used as toilets and to plant shrubs and grasses damaged during the gathering.
“The damage really is minimal and our assessment is no long-term or irreparable damage was done,” Forest Service spokesman Matt Glasgow told the Rocky Mountain News after the event.
The New York Times wrote about the first gathering near Strawberry Lake above Granby in July 1972. The event, which was on both private and Forest Service land, was billed as a religious festival and about 3,000 people walked more than 7 miles up to the remote location. Colorado’s Gov. John Love promised to prevent the gathering, but the blockade collapsed as thousands of “young people hiked across the mountains to get there,” reads the article.