End of the Rainbow

Officials assess impact of gathering

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— You can tell the Rainbow cars by the dust.

As a steady stream of vehicles rolls south this weekend on Routt County Road 129 -- a road lined Friday afternoon with many more law enforcement officers than people thumbing for rides -- it's easy to tell which vehicles are coming from the Rainbow Family of Living Light gathering near Big Red Park, about 35 miles north of Steamboat Springs.

They are the vehicles with a coat of red-yellow dust, dirty windshields, and tires caked in grime that sporadic, monsoon rains can't wash off. In many cases, drivers and passengers -- after days, if not weeks, of camping -- are as dirty as the cars.

U.S. Forest Service officials estimate that at the gathering's July 4 peak, more than 3,100 vehicles were parked in the area, translating to a crowd of more than 15,000 campers. The Rainbow gathering is a weeklong, annual counterculture festival that concluded Friday.

The gathering included many remarkable feats -- a theatrical stage built like a pirate ship, including a 35-foot mast; communal kitchens that served the masses

nearly around the clock with pizzas, fruits and salads, among other choices; the bringing together of people of all ages and backgrounds from across the country and around the world; and a giant, communal prayer circle on the morning of July 4.

But perhaps most remarkable about the Rainbow gathering is what did not happen.

There were no wildfires as of Saturday. There was no cataclysmic disaster. There was no evidence of hazardous waste, said Mike Zopf, county director of environmental health. There was no drastic effect on local tourism -- Steamboat was the state's top destination for the July 4 holiday weekend, and town was crowded again this weekend.

Although the effects of the Rainbow gathering certainly have been felt, especially by law enforcement agencies and the Yampa Valley Medical Center, county officials agreed Friday that it could have been much worse.

"We could have, at any moment, had any other incident going on in this county," said Chuck Vale, director of the Routt County Department of Emergency Management. "We got through this whole thing without a secondary incident -- especially wildfires. We could have had multiple wildfires going on at once."

Joel Cochran is a regional field manager for the state Department of Local Affair's Emergency Management Division. Since June 27, he facilitated daily meetings of national, regional and local officials to manage all aspects of the Rainbow gathering.

"This was a successful incident," Joel Cochran told the team Friday during its last meeting.

The success also must be credited to Rainbow participants, who appeared to take significant steps throughout the gathering to maximize safety and minimize their effect on the Routt National Forest. As vehicles left the gathering Friday, drivers were encouraged to take one or two bags of trash from the waist-high mound at the exit. Little trash could be found at vacated campsites in the gathering area. Rainbow volunteers closely monitored fire pits throughout the event.

However, their presence will leave some marks on the forest. Forest Service spokeswoman Denise Ottaviano said Rainbow gatherers created between 40 and 50 miles of new walking trails in the gathering area.

A 36-year-old New Mexico woman who said her legal name is Prairie Rose reflected Friday on what she liked about her 10th Rainbow gathering.

"Just ... everything," said Rose, a registered nurse. "The community, the acceptance, the safety -- just watching everyone pitch in to make it all happen."

Rose gave mixed reviews about federal law enforcement officers.

"The direct interaction I've had with the Forest Service has been really positive," she said. "But this is the most tickets I've ever seen."

Truth hard to find

According to witnesses from both sides, Rainbow participants and the nearly 100 law enforcement officers brought in to work the event clashed regularly.

But accounts of the incidents varied drastically, depending on the source. The truth was often hard to find.

Forest Service officers reportedly had to use billy clubs and pepper spray to keep themselves from a group of hostile gatherers last week. Another report indicated that gatherers surrounded the vehicles of officers and began throwing rocks and sticks at them. Rainbow participants have denied throwing things at officers.

On Wednesday, a news release from the Forest Service and the Routt County Department of Emergency Management urged "the public to be extra vigilant in protecting their personal property, vehicles and homes." It went on to say: "On July 4, 2006, the Colorado State Patrol reported that an individual was found to be hiding in a barn on private property along County Road 129." The release also stated Routt County could expect "a large exodus" of people leaving the Rainbow gathering this weekend.

Colorado State Patrol spokesman Gilbert Mares said Wednesday that the individual allegedly hiding in a barn was a Durango man who had not been to the Rainbow event and who ran into the barn only when a trooper stopped to question him. The man was released without incident, and no landowners were contacted because the barn was abandoned, Mares said.

Ottaviano said her agency wasn't "targeting Rainbows."

Colorado State Patrol Capt. Rich Duran said Friday that troopers made 673 vehicle stops related to the Rainbow gathering, including 109 on Thursday. There were no crashes or arrests Thursday, Duran said, and "no significant events."

Forest Service law enforcement officers wrote 584 violation notices to Rainbow gatherers as of Tuesday. Officers made seven felony arrests, six misdemeanor arrests and served four warrants, Ottaviano said. The bulk of the violations were for improper occupancy and use of Forest Service land, because of the lack of a special-use permit for the gathering.

Seven days of federal court hearings were held at a North Routt fire station during the event.

Most defendants paid a fine of less than $200 for a petty offense. Some were banned from national forest lands for one year.

The last day of hearings was Friday. Information about the cost of the federal court proceedings for the gathering was not known as of Friday.

Preparation = protection

The Rainbow gathering effect has been felt elsewhere in the community.

Christine McKelvie, spokeswoman for Yampa Valley Medical Center, said the hospital treated 62 patients from the Rainbow gathering between June 26 and July 7, for a variety of ailments. The most serious was a man with cardiac problems who McKelvie said was transported to a metro area hospital. Most ailments, she said, were cuts and scrapes or gastrointestinal problems. McKelvie said most of the patients had not paid for their medical services as of Friday. Treating the Rainbow gatherers will cost the hospital $100,000, she said.

Detentions Dep. Sue Gaskill said Routt County Jail has been crowded, but not to the point where cells are overflowing.

Steamboat Springs Fire Chief Bob Struble said Friday that "call volume has been normal; there has really been no impact from the Rainbows."

When asked Friday about serious incidents in his department, Bob Reilley of the North Routt Fire Protection District cited an intoxicated man who fell and fractured his wrist.

City and county officials have so far been able to manage the Rainbow event thanks to extensive cooperation and preparation, Vale said.

The Multi-Agency Coordination Center," led by Cochran, brought numerous county and federal agencies together with positive results, Vale said.

"Now we're pretty much transitioning back into a typical busy weekend in our county," he said.

Heading south

Perhaps more so than on their way into town, Rainbow participants are having a local effect on the way out. Thousands of participants are making their way south from North Routt and looking to re-supply in Steamboat Springs, leading to busy convenience stores, crowded hot springs at the Steamboat Springs Health & Recreation Center, and a lively crowd at Friday's free Michael Franti & Spearhead reggae concert.

Routt County Sheriff's Office and Steamboat Springs police department officers are continuing to deal with many calls about panhandlers and loitering.

Forest Service officials say a "Rainbow presence" can be expected in the area into August.

For Prairie Rose, it's time to return home to New Mexico and resume working as a nurse. As she sat trailside Friday, an older man with graying hair and a thick beard stopped to give her a hug.

"Will I see you next time?" the man said, likely referring to a future Rainbow gathering.

"Oh yeah," Rose said. "With bells on, baby."

-- To reach Mike Lawrence, call 871-4203

or e-mail mlawrence@steamboatpilot.com

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