The Rainbow Family has started preparing its gathering site on the Malheur National Forest, where 10,000-30,000 people are expected to gather in the coming weeks.
In Flagtail Meadow off of Forest Road 24 south of John Day, vans and buses are starting to arrive for the Rainbow Gathering, held annually on public lands. The event, which began as a prayer for world peace in 1972, attracts “a cross section of America,” attendee Gary Stubbs said —from doctors and lawyers to hippies.
Stubbs said the non-denominational, non-discriminatory gathering was a healing place, which offers an open invitation to any who wish to participate with the group that is loosely organized without a hierarchical structure or leader.
A mile hike from the parking area at the main campsite, wood-fired kitchens are being set up to feed the roughly 500 attendees already at the site. Thousands more are expected to trickle in with the largest influx expected to begin the week of June 26. The event is billed as occurring July 1-7, but local public safety officials say some may stay through the solar eclipse in August.
Latrines will be dug, and plans to route a nearby spring to the main camp area are in place. Piping the springs to the campground is an attempt to protect the riparian areas around the springs, attendee Mark Squire said. Rainbow Family members vow to leave the land better than they found it.
The gathering is unauthorized, however. The Forest Service requires groups of more than 75 people to apply for a special use permit, said Ethan Ready, the public information officer for the incident management team brought in by the agency to handle the influx.
Attendee Adam Buxbaum said the group cannot sign a permit because no member speaks for any other, and no one is in charge. The gathering is protected by the First Amendment, he said.
Ready, who worked at last year’s Rainbow Gathering on his home forest in Vermont, said if the group does not complete the permit, the Forest Service will serve the group with an Event Design Criteria document, an operating plan outlining different mitigation measures and cleanup. Last year, the group cleaned up the site, with the exception of some trails that were not there before the event, he said.
Although attendees are not required to pay money to attend, the gathering is not without cost. Ready said the Forest Service budgets $500,000 each year to manage it.
An interdisciplinary team of forest resource experts was at the site Friday, developing a plan to protect the land and marking off sensitive resources, such as streams, plants and cultural areas. A federal incident management team has been established with about 40 law enforcement officers and other public information, safety, planning, logistics and natural resource specialists.
Beyond the forest, the influx is taxing on local public safety officials as well.
Grant County Sheriff Glenn Palmer said his office has been receiving a large volume of calls from residents and has dealt with a number of minor thefts. He said the gathering has forced vacations to be canceled but said it may be a “blessing in disguise” because it would help the community test its plans for the eclipse.
John Day Police Department Sgt. Damon Rand said the largest incident was a man trying to steal a 12-pack of beer from Chester’s Thriftway. Rand said the police department has also received a number of calls from concerned citizens, some worried about strangers camping where not allowed. He advised residents to keep their homes and vehicles locked and to keep valuables out of sight for the entire summer.
Forest Service Law Enforcement Officer Brandon Robinson said this will be his fifth Rainbow Gathering. He said often it’s the people coming before and after the gathering who cause problems. July 4, the pinnacle of the gathering, is often the most calm because it is a day of prayer, he said.
Robinson warned of petty theft, aggressive panhandling and abandoned dogs and vehicles. He said impacts to the site of the gathering could include compacted soil, degraded water quality, damage to archaeological sites and possible human-caused wildfires.
Sexual assault, fugitives and juvenile runaways have all been present at past camps, and Robinson said they have dealt with one runaway linked to the gathering already this week. He warned of a wide range of drugs likely to be present at the gathering and said interagency cooperation would be needed to keep everyone safe.
“We can’t do this on our own,” Robinson said. “It takes everybody.”
Without leadership or security at the gathering, the Rainbow Family relies on a system called “shanta sena” to keep the peace. Attendee Karin Zrik said, if an incident occurs, “shanta sena” is called out, and everyone within earshot who is willing and able to respond does so. The goal is to form a circle and begin a discussion about the incident and try to reach a solution.
However, Zirk admits sometimes shanta sena is not enough to solve all issues — a stabbing occurred at a Rainbow gathering meeting June 10 during a shanta sena response — and members of the group said they are willing to work with law enforcement.
Agency Administrator Ryan Nehl said the Forest Service is aware of political differences between the Rainbow Family and Grant County residents but recommended people not be confrontational. He said Forest Service law enforcement officers are limited to forest issues, so people would have to contact Oregon State Police, Grant County Sheriff’s Office or John Day Police Department for issues arising outside the forest. The number of visitors will also spread local resources thin, he said.
“The county is 7,500 people, and we’re expecting an influx of 20,000,” he said. “The amount of burden on resources will be high.”
Rebekah Rand, director of Emergency Medical Services and the Hospital Emergency Preparedness Program for Blue Mountain Hospital District, said plans for extra coverage are in place. She said the goal is to avoid any delays in ambulance service to provide “the very best EMS coverage” for the community. She said people should also be generally aware.
“When there’s increased traffic, there’s an increased volume of people, so just make sure to lock your vehicles and be mindful of your surroundings,” she said. “And if there’s any concern, it’s better to be safe than sorry. If you’re concerned about something, whether that’s medical or fire or police, never hesitate to call us.”
• Rainbow Gathering attendees are hosting an informational meeting for residents at 6 p.m. today, June 21, at the Canyon City Community Hall, 129 S. Washington St., Canyon City.
• The Forest Service is hosting a public meeting from 5-6:30 p.m. Friday, June 23, at the Malheur National Forest Headquarters, 431 Patterson Bridge Road, John Day.
The Forest Service has established a public information line people can call with questions or concerns: 541-575-3131.