Local authorities prepare for Rainbows

Clan's summer gathering likely to be held in area forest

Spokane Spokesman Review/May 20, 2001
By Dan Hansen

Planning for the Rainbow Family's annual shindig is going about as well as possible for an organization that boasts no leadership, counts anyone with a belly button as a member and refuses to obtain permits. The only certainty is that the summer gathering for counterculture types will be somewhere in the Inland Northwest. Unless it's held in Utah.

Most likely, folks in the selected neighborhood won't know they've been chosen until mid-June, when Volkswagen buses start arriving. Then, they'll have to scramble to deal with more than 20,000 visitors, many of whom are penniless.

A U.S. Forest Service "National Incident Management Team" was in Spokane Thursday to brace authorities for the likelihood that the Rainbows may meet in the Colville or Idaho Panhandle national forests. At least 100 law officers and others attended the meeting, which was closed to the media. Based on past gatherings, the Rainbow clan will create an instant city four times larger than Colville, Wash., and three times larger than Sandpoint. They'll burden social services, law enforcement, hospitals, food banks and strain the host county's budget.

The Forest Service predicts the Rainbows will create 12 tons of human feces a day, most of it buried in trenches. The scars from thousands of cars, hundreds of campfires and 40,000 feet might be visible for years. Officials can do little planning until they know where the Rainbows are headed. That's something even the Rainbows won't know until the last minute.

A Big Family

The Rainbow Family philosophy has its roots in 1960s hippie culture, the peace movement, the back-to-the-land movement and Native American traditions. Rainbow people draw their beliefs from anarchism, feminism, Christianity, Eastern mysticism and environmentalism. Some are teenage runaways. Some are professionals. Some draw Social Security. "We really are a cross-section of America in all of its good and all of its bad implications," said a longtime Rainbow from California.

The man, who asked not to be identified, runs one of the makeshift kitchens that will feed thousands during the annual gatherings. He and other Rainbows consider themselves harassed by the Forest Service and law enforcement agencies. The summer gatherings are always on public lands but never at developed campgrounds. The gatherings are the first week in July, but hundreds of campers show up weeks early and some stay afterward for cleanup.

The true believers come to worship Mother Earth, human brotherhood and the power of love. They ask that attendees treat the woods as gently as possible. Hangers-on come for the party, for drugs and for easy sex. Mosquitoes and weather willing, many campers shun clothing. "I tell you, you've never seen so many body parts pierced in all your life," said Dr. Todd Damrow, a Montana state epidemiologist who spent six weeks monitoring last year's gathering in the Beaverhead National Forest. Federal, state and local law officers who worked last year's Rainbow gathering made 48 felony arrests, 148 misdemeanor arrests and served 24 warrants. They issued 625 traffic citations and 1,017 warnings. "A lot of our traffic stops ended in drug arrests," said Beaverhead County Undersheriff Jay Hansen. "We had a lot of calls for locating runaways."

"There are some demented people who come to the gathering," the California cook said. "There are also some who are extremely loving and kind." Dennis Havig, district ranger in Wisdom, Mont., said he saw Rainbows at last year's gathering who spent long hours picking up trash and sorting recyclables. Early arrivals worked hard to keep newcomers from driving across fragile meadows, although the effort ultimately failed.

Scouting for Utopia

Rainbows contend that none of them can speak for another, or for the organization as a whole. Their Web page is called "unofficial." They claim to have no hierarchy. Any Rainbow can attend any council, where the group attempts to make decisions by consensus. There is no voting. No "majority rules," Rainbows and experts on the movement say.

Selecting a site for the summer gathering involves four steps. The first step, choosing a region, happens nearly a year in advance, during Vision Council at the summer gathering. At least 50 people attended the first day of last year's Vision Council, according to one participant. The group had dwindled to half that number by the seventh day, when they finally settled on Washington, with Idaho as a backup. Some Rainbows preferred Utah.

The second step is Thanksgiving Council. "We had Thanksgiving dinner, just like anyone else," then studied maps and discussed possible gathering sites, said Chuck Windsong. Windsong said he was one of about 20 Rainbows who gathered last Thanksgiving at a house overlooking the Kettle River in Barstow, Wash. They set up a Post Office box in nearby Orient, Wash. The third step is Scout Rendezvous, which was last week on the Middle Fork of the Payette River north of Boise.

The "scouts" -- Rainbow people who visit and evaluate potential sites -- camped in the pines off a two-lane gravel road. They shared information and pored over topographical maps before heading out on more scouting missions. They're looking for large, remote meadows with ample water and decent roads. Camps may sprawl for miles.

Forest Service rangers already have encountered scouts in the Colville and Panhandle forests. Some came to the Priest Lake ranger station, said Panhandle National Forests spokesman Dave O'Brien. "There really isn't a flat spot (near Priest Lake) that could accommodate that many people," O'Brien said. "The good spots are all on private land." Twenty years ago, Rainbows gathered on the Colville National Forest near Usk, Wash. They raved about the abundant water and good camping at Calispell Creek.

Final site selection will come during Spring Council, on June 10. "If this all sounds very organized, don't be deceived," said Carla Newbre, a Rainbow from Eugene, Ore.

All Donations Accepted

The government requires that any group larger than 75 people obtain a free permit before gathering in federal forests. Under the permit process, the Forest Service has two days to look for potential problems, including impacts on endangered species. It can move a gathering to a site the agency thinks can better handle the crowd. The Rainbows insist the permit process violates First Amendment rights and could make whoever signs the permit financially liable for the group. They refuse to cooperate.

"We've always been willing to do an operational plan, and we've handed out our operational plan to the Forest Service," the longtime Rainbow cook said. "They won't accept the operational plan. They want a signature." Federal courts have ruled against the Rainbows nine times since 1998. During that period, 15 Rainbows the government identifies as leaders have been fined or sentenced to jail time. The Rainbows have lost five of six appeals. "They're just thumbing their noses at democracy and the federal court system," said Bill Fox, past commander of the Forest Service's National Incident Team, which was formed primarily to deal with the Rainbows. In November, Fox met with a handful of Rainbows in New Mexico and the permit application was amended slightly to address some of the Rainbows' concerns. It now spells out that the applicant doesn't take financial responsibility for the group, Fox said.

The result: A Rainbow who attended the New Mexico meeting was berated at the Thanksgiving council. The group sent a letter to the Forest Service soliciting donations. A case study Washington and Idaho officials are only now starting to think about the possible impact of a gathering. Second Harvest Food Bank of the Inland Northwest will discuss the matter at its next board meeting, said director Al Brislain. The Spokane-based agency supplies food to pantries throughout the region.

"We pride ourselves on having a system that doesn't turn people away, but we have limits," said Brislain. "Our first concern is the kids. If people come expecting that we'll feed them every day they're here, they're wrong." The Colville Food Bank will feed as many Rainbows as necessary, but "we don't expect to be heavily impacted," said director Mo Gundersen. Last year's experience in Montana's Big Hole Valley suggests otherwise. Rainbows caught officials off-guard when they started showing up the first Saturday in June. By July 4, they numbered 23,000 -- nearly three times the population of Beaverhead County.

The Missoula Food Bank normally gets about 11 requests from travelers in June. Last June, it got 469. Barrett Memorial Hospital in tiny Dillon, Mont., lost about $90,000 treating 51 patients, most of whom didn't have insurance, said Ken Leighton-Boster, Montana's emergency medical director. Among the admissions were five pregnant women, including one who had to be airlifted to Missoula.

Undersheriff Hansen canceled his vacation, and the county called retired cops and volunteer reserve officers to help with the influx. The Montana Highway Patrol, Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service provided more officers, plus helicopters and other tools. Volunteer emergency-medical providers temporarily became full-time employees. When it was all done, Beaverhead County commissioners reluctantly raised local property taxes to cover costs. Then they sent the Rainbows a bill for $137,189. The Rainbows didn't surprise anyone when they didn't pay.

Rainbow Family Tree

Barry "Plunker'' Adams left a Haight-Ashbury commune in the late 1960s and settled on a North Cascades farm near Marblemount, Wash., where he helped draft dodgers escape to Canada. He met Garrick Beck, a member of a Portland group of craftspeople. The two organized the first Rainbow Family gathering July 4, 1972, at Table Mountain in the Roosevelt National Forest near Granby, Colo.

According to Rolling Stone magazine, more than 20,000 people showed up to pray for peace. The governor called out the National Guard. Every Independence Day since, Rainbows have gathered in national forests for their love-in.

Here are some notable moments:

1980: Two young female hitchhikers on their way to a West Virginia Rainbow gathering are found shot to death. (Twenty years later, a self-proclaimed white supremacist on death row in Missouri admits he did it because one of the women said she dated black men.)

1981: About 12,000 Rainbows attend a gathering along Calispell Creek, about 15 miles northwest of Newport, Wash. Hundreds contract dysentery from contaminated water. A Rainbow work crew stays behind to rehabilitate the land.

1988: The U.S. Forest Service asks a federal judge to stop the Rainbows from gathering in East Texas, citing a national outbreak of dysentery the previous year when sick Rainbows returned home from the gathering. The judge decides the group can gather in groups smaller than 5,000 if they meet state health standards.

1993: Ten thousand Rainbows meet in Central Alabama's Talladega National Forest. Rolling Stone magazine reports: "Everybody is smoking humongous bowls of weed, playing guitars, giving each other full-body massages.'' There are 16 arrests, mostly for drunkenness and nudity.

1998: About 20,000 Rainbows attend the gathering in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest near Edgar, Ariz. A New York Times reporter walks through the encampment and reports "... only a few people were seen smoking cigarettes and even fewer were smoking marijuana, although one man walked through the crowd pleading for some marijuana.''

April 20, 2001: In Colville, Wash., Rainbow Family member John "Chooey'' Grange, 26, receives a maximum 63-year prison sentence in the murders of two fellow Rainbows.

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