As Don Joseph picks his way through a pine forest used by the Rainbow Gathering, it’s obvious people were here.
Paths snake in between trees and sites where tents and latrines were set up a couple weeks ago for more than 13,000 attendees, but it’s hard to say where exactly they were.
Beyond a few orange peels, there’s no garbage in a small chunk of forest used by several hundred Rainbow Gathering attendees who stayed behind after the July 1-7 gathering to clean up.
Joseph, a Vietnam veteran and regular gathering attendee, takes pride in the condition in which the gathering attendees leave their sites.
As with the gathering, many volunteers on the clean-up crew prefer not to give their full name, including Scott. He said attendees who stayed after the gathering have been naturalizing the area by removing trails, fire pits and latrines, ensuring all holes are filled in and spreading duff over disturbed areas.
“The idea is to make it look like we were never here, but we’ll never achieve that,” Scott said.
He explained the vegetation will need time to bounce back, and they can’t simply wave a magic wand and remove all traces of the people who attended the gathering this year.
Scott typically works clean-up at gatherings, and said this one is better than some.
“I’ve seen smaller gatherings produce more trash,” he said.
He attributes this to a downhill walk to the parking lot, allowing people to more easily remove what they brought in, and a dry climate, which didn’t ruin gear with heavy rains.
While the few are left to clean up after the many, Scott doesn’t feel animosity toward those who left behind uncleaned campsites. Instead, he directs it at the hangers-on who refuse to leave the gathering but aren’t assisting with the cleanup.
“You can’t clean the house while all the children are inside,” Scott said.
The majority of the area is anticipated to be recovered within a year, while some smaller areas will take significantly longer to recover, according to a Forest Service press release.
“Only time will tell, but we will do our very best to continue to document damages and impacts to the land, water, and wildlife as well as establish long term monitoring to assess impacts,” Blue Mountain District Ranger Dave Halemeier said.
One of the biggest priorities for those cleaning up is the removal of trash. Everything from cigarette butts to tents were left at the gathering, and volunteers are slowly moving it to the front gate, where it is then trucked to the transfer station outside John Day.
David, a volunteer working near the gate, said roughly 90 percent of the trash has been removed from the forest. At the gate, he and other volunteers work to sort through garbage, recycling and abandoned camping gear and clothing.
Piles of shoes, sleeping bags and tarps are dwarfed by the mountain of garbage.
Lesa, another volunteer working at the gate, said they plan on removing all trash from the site, but need all the help they can get.
“A lot of people left with empty vehicles, which is not OK,” she said.
As part of the recovery efforts, long-term water quality monitoring sites will be established and resource specialists from the Forest Service will work with gathering clean-up crews to ensure efforts meet Forest Service standards, according to the Forest Service press release.