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Rainbow Gathering planned in Colorado sparks fire concerns

Rainbow Family members gather around a fire circle for music and conversation in 2006 north of Steamboat Springs in the Routt National Forest. Officials expect up to 30,000 people to show up for this year's gathering, which is slated to be held in Colorado and will mark the group’s 50th anniversary. (Ed Andrieski/Associated Press file)

DENVER (AP) – The Rainbow Gathering of the Tribes plans to return to Colorado this summer to celebrate its 50th anniversary. The weekslong confab that draws tens of thousands of hippie campers to public lands announced this week that the national gathering of possibly 30,000 would be returning to Colorado.

The group’s national bacchanal was last in Colorado in 2006, with about 10,000 people camping on Forest Service land in north Routt County outside Steamboat Springs. Before that, they were 19,000-strong outside Paonia in 1992. The first national gathering was near Granby in 1972.

The Rainbow Gathering has not said where in Colorado it plans 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 more than 670 comments in less than 24 hours. You can guess the tone of those comments.)

There are no leaders of the Rainbow Family. They don’t have an HQ or even a formal website. No one to call and ask questions. Today’s Rainbow is as loose as any other internet-connected community. They call themselves “the largest non-organization of non-members in the world.” And they closed their Reddit forum to outsiders on Thursday as hundreds of commenters piled on with less-than-enthusiastic responses to the 50th annual gathering in Colorado. Many of the group’s websites crashed Thursday as news spread of the Colorado events.

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 write 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 4 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.

Art Goodtimes, a three-term county commissioner from Colorado’s San Miguel County, pushes his cart loaded with camping gear down the long dusty road to the annual Rainbow Family gathering in the Routt National Forest north of Steamboat Springs in 2006. Officials expect up to 30,000 people to attend this year’s gathering, which is slated to be held in Colorado and will mark the group’s 50th anniversary. (Ed Andrieski/Associated Press file)

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.”

Two overdoses, three babies at 1992 gathering

The 2006 gathering in the Routt National Forest’s Big Red Park near Clark drew 10,000 to 15,000 campers. The Forest Service had 42 members of its National Incident Management Team watching the gathering and reported 218 citations in the weeks before the July 4 holiday peak. By the end of the event that number would top 500. Forest Service officials told The Denver Post they spent about $800,000 managing the event.

The 1992 Rainbow Gathering on the Gunnison National Forest near Overland Reservoir above Paonia drew about 19,000 campers. The National Forest, which compiled a comprehensive report after the event, knew the exact location in early June and began working with about 500 Rainbow Family members by the middle of June. By July 1, there were 4,000 cars parked in meadows around the reservoir.

The 1992 gathering had medical facilities and 35 kitchens spread across about 2,500 acres for the gathering. Campers were dispersed into smaller camps aligned with different values. (For example there was a Sisters’ Camp, a Faire Camp, a Krishna Camp and many camps for residents of specific areas. There’s even an “A Camp” for people who drink alcohol, which is discouraged by the Rainbow Family.)

The report counted 310 traffic violations issued by the Forest Service, Delta County Sheriff’s Office and Colorado State Patrol. The report showed 43 arrests, mostly for traffic issues and drugs. Two people were found dead from a prescription drug overdose. The report showed three babies were born during the gathering. A combination of federal, state and local agencies reported spending more than $573,000 to manage the event.

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.

Rainbow Family members arrive in the Routt National Forest north of Steamboat Springs in 2006, where as many as 20,000 took part in the annual Rainbow Family gathering. (Ed Andrieski/Associated Press file)

“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.

Local lawmakers in Grand County hastily assembled rules around sanitation and large gatherings in hopes of blocking the event. A local judge ruled no more participants could climb to the remote parcel in late June, but was ignored.

“They’ll have to carry us out,” a “determined young girl” told a Denver Post reporter. “And they won’t have enough jails to put us all in.”