Treading Softly On the Earth:
The Rainbow Tribe's Impact on Forest Lands

by Barbara E. Bentley
Copyright 1995, 1996

It is a gorgeous summer day in the mountains of northern New Mexico. San Antonio Mountain, an extinct volcano which resembles a huge and perfectly round overturned bowl, looks velvety in its summer greenery. Wildflowers cover the dry slopes which shed into the nearby Rio San Antonio. Red-orange Indian paintbrush, blue-purple lupine, yellow snakeweed, and spectacular scarlet penstemon grow undisturbed right up to the road's edge. Flocks of mountain bluebirds wheel above, and a small herd of antelope can be seen moving cautiously away over a ridge.

This empty, winding Forest Service road leads into the high back country where, for two weeks during the summer of 1995, thousands of people, mostly members of the Rainbow Tribe of Living Light, gathered in the Carson National Forest's Las Cruces Basin, a green and secluded meadow sheltered by steep pine ridges. The Rainbow People came to camp, pray, and celebrate on these public lands, as they do every year in a different US National Park. They say the purpose of the annual gatherings is to foster worldwide peace, cooperation, and spiritual healing.

All along this fifteen-mile gravel stretch, punctuated every mile or so by cattle guards, there is no visible indication that 18,000 people and their 3,500 vehicles have ever been here (Stauffer, Rainbow). After climbing the last steep ridge on the approach to the main entrance of the gathering, one day-glo-orange-painted rock on the side of the road marks a rutted, muddy trail, which turns out to be the "back door" to the event.

Upon reaching the main entrance, it at last becomes obvious that something big has happened here. This wide new trail has been recently made, because the grass and other vegetation has been flattened by numerous vehicles and pedestrians, the soil compacted and made bare in places. In the parking area, which was also a "Bus Camp" as well as the traditional "A (for Alcohol) Camp," vegetation appears to be trampled, and other new trails are apparent. The ground has been disturbed and dug up in several places; these are evidently the latrines, which have already been backfilled with the original soil. The most noticeable feature of this post-Gathering site is that not a single piece of trash or garbage is to be seen, except for one or two inconspicuous piles of bagged and stacked debris, obviously destined for recycling or the dump. Looking at this immediate area, it is hard to believe that thousands and thousands of people lived here for over two weeks.

Thin gray lines of campfire smoke and a few vehicles and tents in the parking area indicate there are still some people here. After every Rainbow Tribe gathering, a few dozen members stay behind to do intensive cleanup and environmental reclamation of the site. This pledge of responsibility is made by the Tribe to the local Forest Service, local citizens, and to themselves. In addition, Rainbows promise to practice environmentally conscious behavior at all times, respecting, taking care of, and learning about the land. In fact, in their printed handout, Rap 107, which appears at every annual gathering, the Rainbow people provide guidelines to one another for behaving in an earth-friendly manner all through the celebration. These guidelines also serve as open documentation to the public of the Rainbows' intentions to protect the earth and to "notice the balance--[of] earth, water, fire, air" (Rap 107).

Not only are these Rainbow-generated guidelines circulated, but the Rainbow Tribe also officially makes a public, proactive agreement with the local Forest Service Ranger District, in this case at Tres Piedras, the closest town. This agreement takes the form of a Rehabilitation Plan, outlining the concerns of the Forest Service and Rainbows for proper reclamation of the affected land. It includes overall cleanup in general, rehabilitation of specific sites, and ecological restoration (Tres Piedras Rehab Report).

Today, it is clear much of the work has been done. Trash has been picked up as promised, comprehensive recycling of practically everything has taken place throughout the Gathering, and some of the ground rehabilitation is complete. In addition to these points, there are also other, fairly sophisticated environmental practices carried out before, during, and after the Gathering, initiated by Rainbows, which show thoughtfulness, awareness, and a dedication to doing it right. For example, established trails were used all along, to diminish erosion. (Friendly reminders from participants to keep to the trail and "walk lightly" are common at Gatherings.) Watersheds have been studied and protected, evidenced by Rap 107's advice to keep soap, dogs, human waste, gray water, and all pollutants downhill and away from all streams and springs. And fire safety has been practiced constantly, intelligently, diligently (Rap 107). Something many people don't realize is that also participating in Rainbow Gatherings are usually one or two groups of forest restoration professionals such as the Hodags and the Wounded Earth Project (founded by Plunker), who are not only Rainbow members, but who work for the Forest Service and many others year-round, reseeding grazing sites or doing tree planting after clearcutting. These and other experienced foresters and environmentally-trained individuals teach Rainbow neophytes—and anyone else who participates—about proper forest reclamation after such an impact (Savoye 21 July).

At this point, comprehensive reclamation of the Las Cruces Basin site is not yet complete. Still left to be done, according to the rehabilitation outline, is scarification (aereation) of the compacted soil, which entails using a piece of farm equipment called a pike harrow to loosen, not turn over, compacted soils, especially on vehicle paths and high-foot-traffic areas (Rael 18 July). Hand tools such as garden forks, spades, and digging bars are sometimes used as well (Harmon). Also, rocks and logs will be scattered, firepit ash scattered and the pits filled in. Re-seeding with native species will be carried out, as well as mulching to protect the newly-seeded spots. Shrines and sweat lodge structures have already been dismantled, as have the PVC pipe systems erected in nearby freshwater springs. Trails must be cross-ditched and drainage altered to prevent erosion.

The progress of these repairs and rehabilitation criteria is checked on a daily basis by the Forest Service (TP Rehab). Forest Service Ranger Dan Rael of the Tres Piedras Ranger District reports that despite the high numbers of participants, litter control has been good and recycling is being carried out satisfactorily. He is satisfied too with the manner in which latrines were dug, used, and backfilled afterward (Rael 18 July). The more subtle effects to this site which may not be immediately evident, such as wildlife disturbance and post-event water quality, remain to be studied, he said. Nevertheless, "[the Rainbow peoples'] efforts have really helped," Rael stated.

The Rainbow Tribe of Living Light, a self-defined spiritual family group whose roots go back to the early 1970s, has met every year for 23 years to celebrate an earth-centered way of life which is undeniably Native American in spirit. There is evidence that the spiritual roots of the Tribe go back to this kind of American Indian beliefs (McGaa 19-22).

The focus of the annual Gatherings is, essentially, to create sacred space in order to communally pray, meditate on world change, make joyful noise, teach and learn, and build upon a kinship system which goes beyond the mainstream culture's idea of family. We are all related to each other and to all things, they say, as do the Native Americans.

Many Rainbow members focus on one the Hopi Indian tribe's four-hundred-year-old prophecies, which, paraphrased by Rob Savoye, states that ...when the white man's children start to grow their hair, dress like Indians, live like Indians, and follow Indian spirituality, then this is the beginning of the end of many years of abuse of the Indian tribes. These people are white on the outside, but red on the inside. This will start a time of global peace on the planet (Savoye 31 July).
Editors Note: There is way more to the prophecy than my meager attempts to paraphrase it

Savoye says the prophecy specifies that the more people praying for world peace, the better. Therefore, the population at Rainbow Gatherings can be expected to grow.

The Lakota Sioux tribe also influences Rainbow beliefs (McGaa 74-75). Many Rainbows recognize Black Elk, a famous Sioux elder, and the vision he had of, among other things, a flaming rainbow of many colors, which represents understanding. Author and interpreter John G. Neihardt's documentation of Black Elk's vision, which in its entirety has many meanings for the Rainbow tribe, includes the image of a wounded nation brought into a unified circle of peace and healing, the Sacred Hoop, under the flaming rainbow (21-30).

The social beginnings of the Tribe seem to be based in the hippie culture, the 1967 Summer of Love in Haight-Ashbury to be exact (MacAdams, 122). Barry Adams, a.k.a. "Plunker," a peace activist and political outlaw, who in the late '60s started a commune in British Columbia to help Vietnam draft-dodgers, met up with Garrick Beck, of the Temple Tribe of Oregon, a crafts commune dedicated to ecological awareness and responsibility. These two men, now considered Rainbow Elders, staged a free rock festival in Oregon in 1970, which 50,000 people attended. The huge event gave Plunker and Beck the experience to orchestrate other such gatherings, like Rainbow Gatherings, the first one of which they put together at Strawberry Lake, Colorado, in 1972 (Savoye 31 July). Unfortunately, local authorities there did not favorably react to several thousand people praying for world peace in their national forest either (Cahill). And so, from the first Gathering on, local residents and the Forest Service feared and mistrusted the people at these gatherings (MacAdams).

Even today, it appears the Forest Service and other local government agencies want to thwart the Rainbows' First Amendment rights to assemble and express their beliefs on National Forest Service land, sometimes using the argument that Rainbows cause environmental damage (MacAdams). Local outcries from almost every community in proximity to annual gatherings don't help. Local residents are afraid, primarily, that such huge numbers of people moving en masse into delicate forest areas will ruin those areas for decades to come, and that water will be contaminated, wildlife frightened away, and litter blown everywhere. A group of people from the small town of Vallecitos, NM, protested the Gathering in the Las Cruces Basin, saying it would damage the environment (Stiny). Local private citizens who camp and fish in the area have expressed their concern, saying that the wildlife in the immediate area will be severely disturbed, the delicate meadow lands ruined, and that ruts from so many vehicles will cause erosion. One camper wrote in an editorial that she felt that the remains of firepits, debris, and other disturbances will be intrusive and unfair to the wildlife and to others who use it, saying the whole thing is just the construction of an ugly urban bustle in the forest, even though temporary (What's wrong). Other groups, such as cattle ranchers, logging concerns, and hunters are concerned with the same types of potential damage, claiming it will affect their livelihood. A local logger and member of a Federal Sustained Yield Association in New Mexico, Antonio DeVargas, said in heated protest;

In a local Letter to the Editor, a Tres Piedras citizen expressed concern about Rainbows' effects on "the fragile ecosystem. Watershed, threatened and endangered species, riparian areas, air quality and the amount of wood used for campfires, all that the environmental community should be questioning" (Schofield).

Even the Forest Service, which for the most part has positive words about Rainbow cleanup efforts, does not quite trust them. From the beginning of the Las Cruces Basin event, a special U. S. Forest Service Incident Command Team formed to watch the Gathering's progress, treating it as though it were a forest fire (Stouffer, Locals). Ranger Dan Rael expressed his concerns about wildlife stress and displacement. For example, he thought elk migration routes in the Las Cruces basin may be disturbed, and that bear and other wildlife may be displaced by people and loose dogs. He is afraid also that the riparian (riverbank) areas may be irreversibly damaged, and that native cutthroat trout may be frightened away or damaged by soap in the water and other forms of water pollution (Rael 18 July).

Forest Service District Rangers in other states where Gatherings are held express their anxieties, too. At the 1991 Vermont Gathering, the Ranger in that district, Rob Iwamoto, was happy to see reclamation work being done after the event, but was worried because the Rainbows who stayed behind to reseed had not yet completed the job; Rainbow cleanup volunteers said they felt "hassled" by the Vermont Forest Service (Savoye 31 July). There was some fear that future campers would have to be turned away until the vegetation in the trampled area grew back to its original state. Iwamoto also expressed concern about the water quality (Frenay). His emergency task force (like the one at the Las Cruces Basin site) was ready at the Vermont site in the event of environmental problems (Skow).

Other examples of tension include the blocking of a road by Forest Service personnel in North Carolina, preventing a water truck from getting through to the Gathering site there (Savoye 31 July). And in East Texas in 1988, irate Forest Service personnel, along with the state Governor, sought to permanently keep the Rainbows out, considering them a basic threat to the national forest (Baker).

Such disdain for and mistrust of the Rainbow Tribe is widespread by word-of-mouth and rumor, too. Most people, including Native Americans from nearby Taos Pueblo, expressed dismay when told the Rainbow Tribe will be able, much less willing, to clean up and rehabilitate the Cruces Basin Gathering site, feeling that any gathering of that size would be virtually impossible to erase from the land. Even desk personnel at the Taos District Forest Service Ranger Station, who had not seen the Gathering site, appeared deeply mistrustful of the Tribe, and were doubtful that the promised reclamation would be effective.

There is evidence to the contrary, however, beginning with Rap 107, the above-mentioned pamphlet, handed out as a teaching tool and reminder to participants at every Gathering. Its advice is reflected in every restored Rainbow site. Last year's Gathering site in Big Piney, Wyoming, was restored in one season, not one year, as is more common, reported Forest Service Resources Specialist Steve Harmon, of the Big Piney Ranger District in the Bridger-Teton National Forest (Harmon). Harmon said the Rainbow Gathering in his park was successful in every way, thanks mainly to the cooperation of the Tribe in cleaning up and rehabilitating. The spring Scout Crew (which looks for and chooses a Gathering site for the July 4 weekend) was welcomed, and, as usual, helped the Forest Service create and implement a Rehabilitation Plan (such as the one in operation now at the Las Cruces Basin in New Mexico). There was "minimal impact" by the large gathering on the site, part of which was a sage and grass "bench," or flat ridgeline, which had recently been treated with 2, 4-D, a chemical herbicide. Ranger Harmon said the fact they'd had a dry season made the clay soil hard, which helped matters; heavy rains would have caused mud-bog problems and serious rutting.

Pure luck aside, Harmon reported that after the Wyoming Gathering, the participants worked on the site as they always do, loosening and aereating the compacted soils, scattering debris, reseeding with native species. The Rainbow Tribe offered to obtain and pay for all the seed needed for this purpose, but the Forest Service provided about half the necessary quantity, advising the Tribe on what species and varieties to plant. "They would have paid for everything," said Harmon. "They came back in the fall and planted grass varieties that germinate at that time of year, too. It all would have regenerated, but they wanted to speed things up." He went on to say that he was sure there was some wildlife displacement, but felt there was, in general, minimal impact, certainly no more than is caused by large hunting parties which frequent the National Forest there. Elk are counted in the winter at feeding stations, and the population was "at objective levels, if not higher" after the Gathering, thereby dispelling some fears that migration routes are seriously disturbed by human activity. Ranger Harmon concluded by saying "The Rainbows are environmentally conscious. They care, and are willing to work with the Forest Service. Sure, the ranchers were caused some hardship because they had to move their cattle to different grazing areas. But we were able to mitigate the situation and find grazing close by. The Gathering turned out great; even in town. People thought it was going to be a disaster, but it wasn't" (Harmon).

Another positive incident in Wyoming was reported: A fire of unknown origin, presumably arson, because Rainbow camps were already on red alert due to dry conditions and were keeping campfires to a bare minimum, broke out on a ridge above the Big Piney site, away from the encampment, and thousands of Rainbow members worked in bucket brigades to stop the blaze, exemplifying their goodwill and desire to be stewards of the public lands. This event, they hoped, would help maintain Forest Service respect for the Rainbow Tribe, allowing them to continue assembling for peace in large numbers in the National Forests (PCU, The fight).

Another example of the Tribe's desire to work the public lands was evident in Alabama in 1993 at the Gathering there. The District ranger in Talledaga National Forest sent letters of thanks to Rainbow cleanup volunteers for doing an excellent restoration of the site. In addition, the Tribe was thanked for helping with extensive stream-bank rehabilitation, a project needed to help restore to natural numbers a kind of local endangered snail. As it turned out, this restoration job would have cost the Forest Service in Alabama hundreds of thousands of dollars; the Rainbow Tribe did it for free, in conjunction with their cleanup. As a result, the Forest Service proposed asking the Rainbow people always to choose National Forest sites needing such work done. Their volunteer work could save taxpayer dollars, as well as offset other costs usually incurred by local human services and government infrastructure in towns where Rainbow gatherings occur (Savoye 22 July).

In Wyoming in 1994, a previously-slated Forest Service project to "rip out" unneeded forest trails in the Gathering area was carried out gratis by some Rainbow members. Ranger Harmon of the Big Piney District was appreciative of the Rainbows' help in this case (Harmon). However, when Ranger Dan Rael of New Mexico asked Rainbow members to help with a similar project at this year's Las Cruces Basin area, Rainbow help didn't look forthcoming. "I was hoping they would take the job as offered," Rael said. "But I don't think they're going to do it" (Rael 25 July).

There are those who defend the right of the Rainbows to gather, saying they teach the rest of us to pay attention to and take care of our public lands. Some people in the Tres Piedras Ranger District and nearby town of Taos say they trust that the Rainbows will clean up and be effective in their restoration efforts. The Taos newspaper printed many editorials and Letters-to-the-Editor during the Rainbow encampment, some anti-Rainbows, but many which were positive. Some stated that, naturally, the Tribe has problems, as does any society; but that their willingness and desire to live on the earth thoughtfully and carefully, to learn and practice care of the earth and put it into practice, is valid, perhaps a way to make the world a better place. One local citizen writes in an editorial, "It is a premise of the Rainbow Family that it is possible to live more lightly on the land, and they promise that all, all, will be restored. A Forest Service employee who has worked . . . at three Gatherings confirms their high degree of success at restoration" (The Rainbow). And another: "When the Rainbow Family is gone, you're going to see a site that has been respected, well-used and restored. By the time winter blows through there again, you'll never know there was a Rainbow Gathering. Can DeVargas [a local logger who protested the Rainbow gathering] say the same about the stumps he intends to leave as reminders of his presence there?" (The forest) In an editorial in the same newspaper, a Paonia, Colorado Forest Ranger is quoted as saying that the Gathering site in the forest there three years ago was totally reclaimed soon after the Gathering (Family offers). Another Ranger, Dennis Neil of the Colorado Forestry, is quoted as saying that environmental impact is never as bad as expected where the Rainbows are concerned. He said that on visits to sites afterwards, it is hard to tell that a lot of people had been there (Stauffer, Forest Service).

The last word from the Tres Piedras Ranger District regarding the Las Cruces Basin area was that the land is already returning to a natural state, evidenced by new grass coming up in trampled areas after a recent rain. But further aereation of compacted soil needs to be done, said Ranger Rael. "They used the pike harrow Saturday afternoon to aereate [July 22, 1995] and will probably keep working through this week. Also, 99.9% of the trash has been picked up," he concluded (Rael, 25 July).

There is some evidence that established uses of the Forest Service lands cause more damage than all Rainbow Gatherings put together. For example, erosion is evident in areas where cattle overgraze the land. Not only that, but the "delicate riparian areas" which are of concern to citizens and the Forest Service are trampled unmercifully by herds of destructive cattle, in the same watershed area occupied by the Rainbow people (Savoye 22 July).

It is questionable to assume that bathing in the rivers, which the Rainbow folk discourage one another from doing, is as damaging as cows urinating and depositing droppings in the same rivers. Logging and its subsequent damage to the land, including erosion, changes in vegetation, and disturbance of the soil, is another high-impact use of these lands. Add to these factors the presence of normal numbers of campers, hunters and fishermen and their vehicles, along with the use of forest roads for recreational motorcycling and 4-wheeling, illegal in many National Forests, and the argument against "destructive" Rainbow Gatherings weakens. Incidentally, Rainbow member Rob Savoye says the Tribe usually chooses Gathering sites which were formerly used for grazing or logging anyway, not virgin, pristine sites (Savoye 22 July).

A major complaint by locals who use Forest Service lands is that the permit system seems to be unfair.

At the moment, large "unorganized" groups such as Rainbow Gatherings and large hunting parties are not required to sign permits for extended forest use (Harmon), but ranchers, loggers and private woodcutters are, presumably because they turn a profit by using forest products. Forest Service and Department of Agriculture authorities are currently trying to make seven amendments to Forest Service regulations which control such "noncommercial group use" as Rainbow Gatherings. These amendments could affect Rainbow Gatherings, possibly preventing them, because they require the signing of a permit by someone from the group. But part of the Rainbow Tribe's credo is that no single individual is responsible for the Tribe, therefore no one can sign such a permit. Group consensus, which is the stuff of the First Amendment to the Constitution, precludes their "signing over" responsibility for their rights, namely the right to assemble peaceably in large numbers on public land to express their views (MacAdams). One Rainbow elder paraphrased the law thus: "Citizens do not need permission from the Government to exercise Constitutional rights" (PCU The Fight).

The Forest Service seems supportive of the Rainbows, and wants to grant such permits if the amendments eventually pass. But the Rainbow people are working to keep the seven criteria tabled, which they have been for over a year. The Forest Service wants to bring the amendments to litigation again soon. And so now, the Rainbow People are learning not only about watershed care and fire safety, but also about the realities of political activism and points of law, such as that the "founding mandates. . . [of the Forest Service state] that Citizens hold proprietary rights on public land and primary responsibilities for its well-being" (PCU RE: Architecture).

It would seem the worst problems generated by the Rainbow Tribe are not related to environmental impact, but are instead social in nature. Many local citizens usually resent the Tribe, in spite of a 1988 ruling in Texas upholding the First Amendment rights of the Rainbows to gather on National Forest Land, without the above-mentioned land-use permit (MacAdams). Private citizens who camp, fish and hunt, as well as commercial users, must have a permit. Further rancor arises when ranchers with grazing permits must sometimes move their herds to accommodate the Rainbows. One rancher in New Mexico, in an emotional exchange with a few remaining Rainbow people at a community meeting at the New Mexico Gathering site, reported that he lost several calves because there was no running water in the area where his herd had been relocated; heavy rains prevented the rancher from checking the health of the herd (Rael 25 July). In addition to these problems, extreme monetary drains on local government, health and human services, and other local infrastructures are common complaints, in spite of the fact the extra Rainbow people circulating in surrounding towns spend money, which goes to gross receipts taxes, thence to human services.

In spite of these worldly difficulties concerning their rights to gather, the Rainbow Tribe, after all is said and done, seems to be softly treading a path towards greater spiritual awareness and respect for the Earth. They have their own version of The American Dream: the seemingly unbelievable idea of actually living in peace and harmony with one another, and treating the land respectfully as many Native Americans do. To the Rainbows, earth is a sacred place which deserves our attention and care (McGaa). This they have shown at their enthusiastic Gatherings. For the most part, they do pay attention to and take care of the land, something many of us have forgotten. Let them gather under the flaming rainbow of understanding, to pray that the elusive powers of global peace and unity may someday become a reality in the hearts of all people.

Thanks to Rob Savoye, Dan Rael, Tom Bruce, and that truckload of friendly Rainbows in the Big O parking lot.

Works Cited