Carbon County officials are working with the U.S. Forest Service to prepare Wyoming and Colorado for the arrival of thousands of Rainbow Family of Light members attending the group’s 50th annual gathering.
“We found out two weeks ago they were going to be on the Routt National Forest,” said Aaron Voos, a U.S. Forest Service spokesperson. “We’d known they wanted to be somewhere in Colorado, but due to the loose leadership of the group, we didn’t have a lot of lead time to prepare.”
More than 10,000 Rainbow Family attendees are expected to visit the Adams Park area of the Routt National Forest, about 13 miles south of the Wyoming border, during the Independence Day weekend.
“We went down to Craig, Colorado, with the Carbon County fire warden and a sheriff’s deputy,” Carbon County Emergency Manager Lenny Layman said. “I wanted to see a general layout of Adams Park and get a feel for where they would be coming through.”
The Rainbow Family is “the largest non-organization of non-members in the world,” according to one of its websites, www.welcomehome.org. The group declares it has no leaders and no organization and it promotes intentional community building, non-violence and alternative lifestyles.
The group has been gathering on National Forest land since 1972, when it hosted its first gathering near Strawberry Lake on the Arapaho National Forest in Colorado, the Forest Service reported.
Because of the group’s lack of leadership, the Rainbow Family does not apply for a special permit the Forest Service would typically require of a gathering this large.
“This is an unlawful, unauthorized gathering on public land,” said Hilary Markin, a spokesperson for the Forest Service’s National Rainbow Incident Management Team (NRIMT).
Regardless of the gathering’s legality, Layman said it’s incumbent on Wyoming to be prepared in the case of an emergency.
“If a fire started southwest of the event, the egress routes south might be blocked, making an evacuation only viable north into Wyoming,” he said. “If we don’t think of these things before they happen, then we are caught on our heels.”
As of Monday, more than 2,000 attendees were already on site in the Adams Park area, the NRIMT reported.
Much like wildfires and other natural disasters, the Rainbow Family gathering is assigned its own incident management team, said Markin, who’s been with the team since 2019.
“We have about 60 people in the management team,” she said. “We’re here to engage the public, field questions, deal with health and safety risks and reduce the amount of actions that could impact the land.”
Voos said one of those impacts is caused by the number of vehicles that can accompany 10,000 people. Rainbow Family gatherings are typically hosted in vehicle-accessible areas and while the forest has some parking available, the sheer number of vehicles could damage the resource.
“When you start talking about thousands of people, there’s potential for serious impacts,” Voos explained.
For the family’s part, Markin said group members will try to negate the impact of their vehicles by carpooling in busses and RVs.
While working with the NRIMT in 2021, Markin said she saw one gathering attract about 7,000 people who traveled to the area in about 2,000 vehicles.
“Even with the carpooling, it’s still a significant impact,” Markin said.
The Forest Service has periodically cited Rainbow Family members for failing to obtain a permit, according to NRIMT documents. However, the agency also works with the family to adhere to a resource protection plan in lieu of a special use permit to protect the health and safety of individuals at the incident and in the surrounding community, to ensure sensitive resources are protected, to minimize any environmental damage and to coordinate post-event cleanup and rehabilitation of the event site, the documents state.
“Members of the group typically start showing up at gathering site a week or two in advance,” Markin said. “Then, after the event, the Rainbow Family will have a group come in and rehab the area, which can take weeks.”
Officials from Routt County and Colorado are the gathering’s lead responders should anything go awry, but Layman said Carbon County’s communication center stands ready if the need arises.
The Carbon County Emergency Operations Center (EOC) could dispatch Carbon County resources, such as medical or law enforcement personnel, if requested, he said.
“What I’m asking for from Colorado partners is that all non-911 resource requests go through our EOC,” Layman said. “That way, rather than someone calling up to every firehouse or police department in Carbon County to locate a needed resource, all the calls come into one place, and we can find them the resources they need.”
County officials are also working with partner agencies to create an evacuation plan. While the most likely evacuation route would take family members further south into Colorado, Layman said he wants Wyoming to be prepared should it prove the only viable means of escape.
While the gathering is no longer than a few weeks, Voos said the Forest Service’s primary goal is to ensure it does negatively affect the landscape for years to come.
“Where there are lots of people, there are lots of feet, wheels and infrastructure,” he said. “So there are impacts to the land, wildlife and natural resources.”
Go to https://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/mbr/landmanagement/?cid=FSEPRD1033996 for daily NRIMT reports about the gathering.