Rainbow Family, Forest Service disagree on festival impact
Posted July 7
JOHN DAY, Ore. — If you spend enough time at prayer circles organized by the Rainbow Family of Living Light, you'll likely hear the Legend of the Rainbow Warriors, which refers to a group of people from all races and creeds who rise up to save the Earth during a time of environmental crisis.
The legend refers to the Rainbow Family, a disparate counterculture community that has brought around 15,000 people to the Malheur National Forest north of Burns to camp, barter, pray, spin fire and more for a week.
However, threats of trampled meadows, disturbed wildlife and other impacts have U.S. Forest Service officials concerned that an unpermitted gathering loosely intended to save the Earth could end up harming the portion it occupies.
"Any time you put close to 10,000 people in a spot, you're going to have problems," said Dave Halemeier, Blue Mountain district ranger for the Malheur National Forest.
While Forest Service officials tend to worry whenever the Rainbow Family comes to a new environment — because the group eschews permits and other trappings of organized events — members of the family say the federal government's concerns are overstated. Some attendees at this year's gathering say the Malheur National Forest environment will return to normal within a year and express frustration with Forest Service employees for what they see as excessive interference.
"It's going to look like we were never here," said Adam Buxbaum, a Rainbow Family member who works at the group's information center.
The Rainbow Family, which bills itself as the "largest non-organization of non-members in the world," has held large, semiofficial annual gatherings, which are open to all, on Forest Service land since 1972.
Halemeier said the tribal council, which chooses locations for future gatherings, identified several spots in the Malheur National Forest in early June before narrowing the choice to Flagtail Meadow.
People can stay shorter or longer, but the group typically meets from July 1 through July 7, with the peak occurring July 4, when the Rainbow Family holds a massive peace prayer on the "main meadow," at the center of the 3.5 square miles the group is occupying. During that week, a parade of cars, trucks and derelict school buses descends on public lands. Rainbow Family members set up close-knit clusters of tents, rows for people to barter goods in lieu of money, impromptu stages and a large central fire circle for group-wide events.
Halemeier said the Forest Service, which patrols the edges of the area and counts cars in the parking area, noted more than 13,000 people in the area for the prayer. Having that many people, and their vehicles, in the area, has done serious damage to the main meadow, he said.
"It's basically been reduced to dirt."
Halemeier added that the meadow would likely take years to recover fully. Other meadows have less dramatic, but still visible, impacts.
"We've seen compaction (of grasses); we have loss of vegetation," Halemeier said.
In addition, the Forest Service says animals, including elk, have been displaced by the gathering. Many attendees have dogs and other pets, which run free and cause problems for local wildlife, said Halemeier.
However, Buxbaum, who goes by "Finch" during the gathering, said overreactions and exaggerations follow the Rainbow Family to each new forest it visits.
He said the Rainbow Family pays to clean up sites and it takes trash to local landfills, using thousands of donations collected by passing around a "magic hat" during dinner. While trash bags and other debris are clearly visible in portions of the Flagtail Meadow camp, there's also clear evidence that trash is being sorted with an eye toward cleaning it.
"It's just a persistent rumor every year," he said.
Tim, an Ashland resident who declined to give his last name, said he has attended Rainbow Family gatherings since 1981 and hasn't noticed lasting negative impacts on the environment during his time in the forest.
"This amount of impacting and compacting is gone by next year," he said. "About the time the cycle comes around again next year."
He added that the land used at Rainbow Family gatherings is typically leased to local ranchers and far from pristine to begin with.
Documents from the Forest Service after gatherings from previous years tell a more mixed story. Messages from staff after the 1999 gathering in the Allegheny National Forest in Pennsylvania, obtained under the federal Freedom of Information Act, refer to trash left over after the event. However, in a separate document, the district manager concludes that there will be "minimal long-term negative resource impacts" on the forest.
Halemeier said the Rainbow Family has gotten in trouble in the past for damaging Native American artifacts in the forest.
This year, the gathering has worked with the Burns Paiute Tribe in Eastern Oregon to put up signs and set up an information area near the main meadow where tribal members can answer questions.
Wildfires, both human- and lightning-caused, are a concern in the Malheur National Forest this time of year, and Halemeier said there has been at least one uncovered campfire at the gathering that could have caused problems. However, hand-drawn, cardboard signs telling attendees to cover their fires abound throughout the campsite.
While Tim said there are a few bad apples during any gathering, the majority of visitors attempt to treat the wilderness with respect.
"There's a purity, a sincerity here that's not common," he said.