Environment: Rainbow Worriers

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, July 1994

Environment: Rainbow Worriers

The Forest Service tries, again, to corral a happy hippie jamboree
By Ned Martel

A sprawling campsite. Lentils simmer in iron cauldrons. Bota-squeezing women twirl in batik skirts. A sunburned longhair yowls that a U.S. Forest Service ranger--who's doubtfully eyeing his cathole latrine--is violating his "constitutional right to free speech."

Ah, the Rainbow Gathering of the Tribes, a 15,000-strong campout that occurs every July, usually in a national forest. For 23 years members of the Rainbow Family of Living Light--a loose confederation of former flower children, Deadheads, and anarchists--have bookended the Fourth of July with a weeklong powwow that severely rankles the bureaucratic brains at the Forest Service. The government gripes that the Rainbows, despite their low-impact-camping pretensions, warrant a shorter leash. "The real Rainbows are pretty good," says William Svensen, a Washington, D.C.-based Forest Service staffer, "but there are hangers-on who don't always have the same feelings for Mother Earth."

Twice before, in 1984 and 1988, the Forest Service tried to require the Rainbows, who keep things "spontaneous" by finalizing their site only weeks before the gathering begins, to apply in advance for a site-use permit. Both times the policy was struck down in federal court--among other reasons, for violating their rights of free speech and free assembly.

Now, as thousands of shaggy souls head for this year's conclave in western Wyoming, things are getting testy again. (At press time, Rainbow advance men were prowling the Bridger-Teton National Forest, near Pinedale.) The Forest Service has come back with a new set of permit regulations, which might be in place in time for this year's gathering. The new rules would force assemblies of 25 or more to apply for a camping permit, require such groups to cough up a security deposit (amount to vary locally) to cover "potential damage" to federal property, and give the Forest Service final say in the site-selection process. This time, shifting strategy a bit, the government is characterizing its effort as a resource-protection plan rather than crowd control. Soil compacted by thousands of Birkenstocks and earth-blackened feet, rangers argue, takes years to recover, while site-approval is necessary to protect critters from mob stampedes.

However it's spun, regulation still annoys the Rainbows, whose amorphous leadership vows to gather in defiance of the rules, even if that means risking arrest. "Here we have socialist bureaucrats who are upset that something other than the mainstream works," fumes 45-year-old Garrick Beck, a Rainbow Family elder based in New York. "We take a chipmunk's-eye view of those meadows," Beck insists. Although not likely to be a problem this year, a future concern is an effort by the Forest Service's law-enforcement wing to beef up its power to ticket and bust people for drug use, public nudity, and other misdemeanors.

Meanwhile, as Pinedale awaits the onslaught, helpful perspective is available from the public comments filed in Washington about the proposed new rules. Dr. Michael Hanna of Anniston, Alabama--whose practice is located near last year's site in Talladega National Forest--writes that the Rainbows' impact was "considerably less severe" than that of the rowdy stock-car-racing fans who hit town twice a year. "And there was certainly no more nudity in the Talladega National Forest," Dr. Hanna concludes, "than we experience at the Talladega racetrack on race day."

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