Carrying the cost

U.S. Forest Service estimates gathering price more than $1 million

The Steamboat Pilot, Colorado/July 16, 2006
By Melinda Mawdsley

A little more than a week after the official end of the Rainbow Family of Living of Light's annual gathering, local, state and national agencies are tabulating how much the event will cost taxpayers.

Although it's too soon to pin down a definitive number, the estimate is in excess of $1 million, said Kim Vogel, public affairs officer for the Medicine Bow/Routt National Forest.

"That's probably optimistic," Vogel said last week. "The irony in all of that (is that) this is a group that doesn't believe in government or leadership. When the government foots the cost, all of us end up paying for their gathering."

Of that $1 million, more than $750,000 pays the wages earned by the 40 U.S. Forest Service employees who patrolled the Big Red Park area in North Routt County, where an estimated 15,000 Rainbow gatherers convened between late June and early July.

The remaining $250,000 -- or more -- will cover the expenses incurred by agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management, the Routt County Sheriff's Office, the Colorado State Patrol and the Steamboat Springs Police Department. Each maintained a presence in North Routt during the gathering or dealt with Rainbow-related issues in Steamboat Springs.

Yampa Valley Medical Center officials have said that treating Rainbow gatherers at their hospital will cost the not-for-profit facility more than $100,000.

The large presence of law enforcement officers in and around the Rainbow gathering was a source of contention for many event attendees. Some -- both Rainbows and area residents -- questioned the necessity of those officers, and those questions are likely to persist as the cost to taxpayers of policing the gathering becomes clearer.

But Vogel said the Forest Service could have used even more officers to oversee the gathering.

"We actually needed more personnel than we had (in order) to do a good job," she said. "We got some good help from the State Patrol and the county, but there are certain things only the U.S. Forest Service can do."

Specifically, an increase in the number of resource advisers would have been helpful within the gathering, Vogel said.

Six resource advisers were responsible for handing out citations for various offenses, but they also were responsible for talking to people and educating visitors on minimizing their impact on the forest.

A large-scale fire was the Forest Service's major concern. A small fire -- less than one-tenth of an acre -- reportedly started before the Fourth of July, but Forest Service officers and Rainbow gatherers quickly extinguished it.

The avoidance of what Vogel called a "worst-case scenario" didn't mean the Rainbow gathering went off without incident -- she said the Forest Service issued 1,205 citations.

The most common ticket was for illegal gathering because the Rainbow gathering didn't have a special-use permit to occupy the public land. The free permits are required for any gathering of more than 74 people on national forest land. More serious citations were issued for drug possession and assault.

"Part of what helped is the team that came had done this for three years," Vogel said, referring to the Forest Service's National Incident Management Team. "As far as understanding the intent of the gathering and knowing the people, it helped."

Within city limits, Steamboat Springs Director of Public Safety J.D. Hays said local law enforcement officers kept busy dealing with the typical bustle that comes with the Fourth of July holiday.

The tens of thousands of tourists in Steamboat, coupled with the attention the police department was paying to the Rainbow gatherers passing through town, translated to overtime for officers, Hays said.

From mid-June to mid-July, the police department tallied $13,000 in overtime pay. The overtime amount during the same time last year was $6,600, Hays said.

Because the gathering took place outside of city limits, the Routt County Sheriff's Office had more direct involvement in policing the Rainbow gathering than did the police department.

Numerous calls to the Sheriff's Office were not returned last week.

"Things pretty much went as we anticipated," Hays said. "We did not see any significant increase in serious crime, but we did see minor things like panhandling, trespassing and maybe a little increase in shoplifting."

Hays said the Rainbow presence in Steamboat seems to have dissipated since the official end of the gathering July 7.

"The vast majority was no problem at all," Hays said about Rainbow members. "Basically, this event did not have much of an (effect) on us in terms of the police department."

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