Rainbow Gathering could hold 30,000 people in Grand County, Arapaho Forest

The Rainbow Gathering of the Tribes plans to move back to Colorado this summer to celebrate its 50th anniversary. The week-long confab that draws tens of thousands of hippie campers to public lands announced this week that the national gathering of perhaps 30,000 would return to Colorado.

The band’s national bacchanal was last held in Colorado in 2006, with about 10,000 people camping on forest service land in northern Routt County outside of Steamboat Springs. Before that, there were 19,000 outside Paonia in 1992. The first national gathering took place near Granby in 1972.

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The Rainbow Gathering did not specify where they planned to land in Colorado for the festival in late June/early July. But in mountain communities fearful of the fires already raging against 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 forest fire. (This post on Reddit — Take action against the Rainbow Gathering – garnered more than 670 comments in less than 24 hours. You can guess the tone of these comments.)

There are no rulers of the Rainbow Family. They don’t have a headquarters or even an official 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-member non-organization in the world.And they closed their Reddit Forums to strangers on Thursday as hundreds of commentators piled in with less than enthusiastic responses at the 50th annual rally in Colorado. Many of the group’s websites crashed Thursday as news of the events in Colorado spread.

The loose structure makes it difficult for federal land managers and local communities to deal with the impacts and plan for the pending hippie party. The Forest Service, citing online chat and messagessuspects the group may plan to gather in Grand County in June and July.

“The original 1972 gathering was up there, so I think there’s a potential desire to return to Grand County for their 50th,” said Reid Armstrong of Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests.

Members of the Rainbow Family arrive in the Routt National Forest north of Steamboat Springs, July 1, 2006. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

Without a leadership structure, the Forest Service has been unable to enforce its rules requiring a permit for gatherings of more than 75 people on public lands. The agency typically writes illegal camping tickets at large Rainbow gatherings, but obviously the rangers don’t write more than 10,000 citations at each gathering. The Rainbow group has maintained since the 1970s that it has the right to gather on public land.

The National Forest has a National Incident Team that tracks annual Rainbow Family gatherings, which typically peak during the July 4 holiday. (Last year’s gathering was in the Carson National Forest near TaosNew Mexico.) This team — primarily Forest Service law enforcement officers — works with local communities and local police.

Although the specific location is not known until the Rainbow family sends a reconnaissance team to find a location that offers open spaces near a water supply, the forest service and law enforcement of Grand County 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.

Bureau of Land Management Police search for a member of the Rainbow family as he arrives at the North Routt Fire Station near Steamboat Springs, Colo., Friday, June 30, 2006, where the Federal Magistrate Installation Court handles tickets given to Rainbow Family members for trespassing and other infractions. As many as 20,000 people are expected to gather in Routt National Forest for their annual Rainbow Family Gathering. (Ed Andrieski, AP Photo)

In 2006, a reconnaissance report from the Rainbow Gathering explored the possibility of returning to Grand County and identified a handful of possible locations on Forest Service land, including church park, Red dirt tank and buffalo park.

A benefit for the impact of the Rainbow Gathering: The Forest Service knows it happens, unlike major wildfires like Cameron Peak and East Troublesome, the two largest wildfires in Colorado history that raged in parts of the Arapaho National Forest in 2020.

“So we can plan for it and prepare for it,” Armstrong said. “The impacts, however, may be the same. Slightly different, but the extent of natural resource impacts can be similar, which is why we use an incident management team.

2 overdoses, three babies at 1992 rally

The 2006 Gathering in the Routt National Forest big red park near Clark attracted 10,000 to 15,000 campers. The Forest Service had 42 members of its National Incident Management Team watching the rally and reporting 218 quotes in the weeks preceding the peak of the July 4 holiday. By the end of the event, that number would top 500. Forest Service officials told the Denver Post they spent about $800,000 to run the event.

The 1992 Rainbow Gathering in the Gunnison National Forest near Overland Reservoir above Paonia attracted approximately 19,000 campers. The National Forest, which compiled a full report following the event, knew the exact location in early June, and began working with approximately 500 members of the Rainbow Family in mid-June. As of July 1, 4,000 cars were parked in the meadows around the reservoir.

Art Goodtimes, three-term San Miguel County Commissioner, pushes his cart loaded with camping gear down the long dusty road leading to the annual Rainbow Family Gathering in the Routt National Forest, north of Steamboat Springs, July 1 2006. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

The 1992 gathering had medical facilities and 35 kitchens spread over approximately 2,500 acres for the gathering. Campers were dispersed into smaller camps aligned with different values. (For example, there was a sisters’ camp, a fairground camp, a Krishna camp and many camps for residents of specific areas. There is even an “A camp” for people who drink alcohol , which is not recommended by the Rainbow Family.)

The report listed 310 traffic violations issued by the Forest Service, the Delta County Sheriff’s Office and the Colorado State Patrol. The report lists 43 arrests, mostly for traffic and drug issues. Two people were found dead from an overdose of prescription drugs. The report showed that three babies were born during the rally. A combination of federal, state and local agencies said they spent more than $573,000 to run the event.

The Forest Service reported that about 500 members of the group remained after everyone left to fill in 200 trenches that had served as toilets and to plant shrubs and grasses damaged during the rally.

“Damage is truly minimal and our assessment is that no long-term or irreparable damage has been caused,” 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 took place on both private and forest service land, was billed as a religious holiday and about 3,000 people marched over 7 miles to remote location. Colorado Governor John Love promised to prevent the rally, but the blockade collapsed when thousands of “young people crossed the mountains to get there”, the article reads.

Local Grand County lawmakers hastily assembled rules regarding sanitation and large gatherings in hopes of blocking the event. A local judge ruled that no other participants could climb the remote plot at the end of June, but was ignored.

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

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