Environmental watchdogs over the High Uintas are cheering the free-spirited philosophy of the Rainbow Family, but they are booing the idea of tens of thousands of people possibly trashing the public forest.
The Rainbow Family, a loosely organized counterculture group, received a permit to hold its annual Fourth of July weekend gathering on the shores of Lyman Lake of the Wasatch-Cache National Forest. Some participants are already arriving, and the event is ultimately expected to draw up to 20,000 people.
Law enforcement is gearing up for the onslaught, and the High Uintas Preservation Council is also bracing but for different reasons.
"So many people are complaining for the wrong reasons," said Dick Carter, president of the High Uintas Preservation Council. "People complain about their lifestyles. That's not the issue at all."
In a June 15 letter to members, the council said the Rainbow Family is sending a mixed message when it touts living lightly yet holds a large gathering that can't help but disrupt the environment.
"While some have criticized the Rainbow Family for being peaceniks, hippies and a host of other names, we have only one concern," the letter stated. "It is simply not possible to profess a deep concern for nature and then converge by tens of thousands, coming in airplanes and cars, on sensitive wild or near-wild landscapes."
A participant told the Associated Press that the group intends to be good environmental stewards.
"We're going to do our very, very best to protect the resources of the area and work with state, county and local officials for health and safety," said Garrick Beck, a longtime gathering participant who signed the noncommercial special use permit under the description of "individuals" gathering on a national forest.
Forest spokeswoman Kathy Jo Pollock said the group's permit covers the Little West Fork Black Fork area, about 70 miles east of Salt Lake City on the north slope of the forest and slightly northwest of Lyman Lake, large enough to accommodate the 8,000 to 20,000 expected to attend. The gathering is July 1-7, but between 300 and 500 people already have arrived, she said.
Carter said he doesn't dispute the right for people to gather on public land. But there are side effects.
"To gather for peace and seek common ground are deep and profoundly important in these troubling times," he said. "But when they come en masse there's a disconnect that's really big."
The gathering commences with a "great circle" and prayer.
"Everybody comes down to this central meadow, and each person does their own meditation, prayer or contemplation for peace on Earth," Beck said.
"After that we'll do the usual good job of cleaning up. For 32 years we've cleaned up, rehabilitated and reseeded" after the gatherings, he said.
"That's irrelevant," Carter said. It's the impact of the moment, he added.
"It doesn't matter whether the garbage is hauled out, the human waste properly handled - the sheer number of bodies literally disrupts the context of the landscape, disrupts wildlife behavior, fractures habitat and changes the landscape to one dominated completely by human activity," Carter's letter states.
Carter said he wouldn't have a problem if the group gathered in small groups across the nation.
"Smallness matters in these days," he added. "It is sad and worrisome that the great circle could be so large that it destroys its own meaning."