Most people associate National Incident Management teams with natural disasters such as forest fires, not public prayer circles. But when the prayer circle includes an estimated 15,000 to 25,000 people in the Routt National Forest, the impact on the forest becomes a concern.
U.S. Forest Service officials say they are taking precautions to ensure that the only cries of "Fire on the mountain" during this year's Rainbow Family of Living Light annual gathering will be the singing of old Grateful Dead lyrics. The official Rainbow Family gathering is from July 1 to 7, and Routt County is playing host this year.
The Forest Service has sent a 10-member National Incident Management Team to Steamboat Springs to minimize the impacts on national forest lands and to protect the health and safety of forest visitors, Forest Service spokeswoman Denise Ottaviano said.
"The main issues are impacts on the resources -- riparian ground vegetation, the effects of the parking areas, soil compaction, sanitation and the displacement of wildlife," said Denise Ottaviano, who will serve as the team's public information officer.
The National Incident Management Team is made up of Forest Service employees from across the country and is assigned to manage large group events.
At the 2005 gathering in West Virginia's Monongahela National Forest, Ottaviano said the team's success in managing the event was helped by the fact that only 10,000 people attended. She also said the Rainbow Family and the Forest Service shared an interest in treading lightly on forest lands.
"They make an effort to minimize impact, but with 20,000 people, there's going to be one," Ottaviano said. "We coordinate with the Rainbows on how to rehabilitate the land, from dispersing fire rings to picking up trash."
Ottaviano's team could have a challenge. Members of the Rainbow Family have refused to sign a free special-use forest service permit, which binds them to Forest Service forest-use regulations.
"They needed to get the permit to us the moment they had over 75 people gathered," Ottaviano said. "There's already at least a couple hundred up there, gathered illegally. We've given them the application and hope they sign. They have the past three years. ... They're not above the law. Citations can be issued."
Weekend visitors concerned their outdoor plans could be derailed by the gathering should be reminded that the event should occupy only 1,000 to 4,000 of the Routt National Forest's 1.2 million acres, Ottaviano said.
The gathering's most immediate effect on Routt County residents likely will be the influx of visitors purchasing supplies before they head up to remote forest areas.