By Perry Backus, of The Montana Standard
WISDOM -- Standing the middle of last summer?s Rainbow Family of Living Lights Kiddie Camp, Dennis Havig looks around and shakes his head in awe of the resiliency of the forest.
"It wasn't unusual to see 300 to 400 in this area through the gathering,?? remembers the Forest Service's Wisdom District Ranger. "By the time they were gone, it was just dust."
A little less than a year later, a new crop of grass and forbes has covered the ground.
"There's an aspect of diminished vegetation, but you'd have to look hard to see the damage," he said. "The untrained eye isn?t going to see it."
In the valley of Saginaw Creek, last summer's constant sound of drums, children's voices and the buzz of nearly 23,000 people has been replaced by the low murmur of a nearby brook and a few birds calling from the trees.
From across the meadow where thousands gathered to celebrate on July 4, the only sign of life is a lone mule deer strolling through the sagebrush.
It's almost hard to imagine that such a throng had ever visited this place in the foothills of the Big Hole Valley near Jackson.
Last week, Havig spent an afternoon taking a look at the site that extended across hundreds of acres on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest.
Havig had been in the thick of the yearly event that brings hordes of counter-culture folks from all over the world together for several weeks. The Rainbows don't ask for permission to camp - claiming its their constitutional right to gather to pray for peace.
Their sudden appearance in the Big Hole and the weeks of steady traffic through the area left locals with mixed feelings. Some complained bitterly about the different looking sorts that shifted through the area.
Others took the event in stride and some profited by it.
"The bottom line is I really didn't know what to expect," said Havig. "I've never dealt with 23,000 Rainbows before ... the worst part was the unknown."
No one had an idea how the seemingly fragile mountain meadows and lodgepole pine forests would handle the intrusion.
As Havig walked through meadows that had become impromptu parking lots, the little flat where thousands spent countless hours bartering and through the trees where hundreds of slit toilets were covered up, he found signs of the gathering.
But he did have to look to spot them.
As he walked along taking close notice of the vegetation, the trails winding through the trees and the occasional sumps in the ground marking the site of a covered pit toilet, Havig kept repeating, "this is not dramatic. It's a subtle change."
The damage to the resource could have been a lot worse, he said. Beaverhead County Sanitarian Larry Laknar took his own tour earlier in the week. He came to the same conclusion.
"You really have to look close to see the signs there were that many people out there," he said. "It seems like it's healing up pretty well."
Last summer's drought probably had quite a lot to do with that. The dry conditions ensured that vehicles wouldn't leave huge ruts in soggy mountain meadows or along the edge of forest roads.
Havig said the agency also spent a lot of time visiting with Rainbows as they pulled into camp. They worked with the group in an effort to keep them off fragile areas. That worked well until the last few days when the numbers of people arriving at the site were just to large to get the word out, he said.
Havig said he had first-hand experience in seeing just what the ground will absorb several years ago when a group of horsemen following the Nez Perce Trail came through the area. They had 300 horses and 500 people.
"We learned a little bit about large groups back then, but this (Rainbows) was a whole new experience," he said. "This ground really is resilient. It will come back."
Between 100 and 150 Rainbows stayed after the gathering to help with the cleanup, which included dismantling huge rock ovens, tearing down structures, covering pit toilets and scouring the ground for discarded trash.
"They were here until the middle of August," said Havig. "They did an excellent job of cleaning up.
There were 23,000 people here and you can find virtually no trash."
"I think we were very fortunate," he said. "There's less impact than what I would have expected."