UPDATE (Friday, June 16): The Rainbow Family of Living Light will hold its annual Rainbow Gathering on the Malheur National Forest, on the Blue Mountain Ranger District near the towns of John Day and Seneca in Eastern Oregon, U.S. Forest Service officials announced today. The gathering could draw anywhere from 10,000 to 30,000 people. Participants are currently beginning to arrive and officials expect attendance to peak the week of July 4th.
Original story: A loose-knit group known as the the Rainbow Family of Living Light is planning a gathering that could draw up to 20,000 people to Oregon from July 1 to July 7, according to a variety of sources, including law enforcement. It's been held yearly since 1972, usually on remote sites, frequently on national forest land. While rumors have been consistent that it may take place in Southern Oregon, that’s not firm.
“We don’t know where it’s going to be," says Ashland Deputy Police Chief Warren Hensman. "At this point, we’re thinking perhaps Northern Oregon, but we have no idea ... It would take a lot of coordination to get that many people in and out of the forest, (and arrange for) water, sanitation — it’s a big job to coordinate something like that in two weeks, but we haven’t heard where it is.”
The U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management concurs that they have not been given a specific location, but they are ready despite the fact they don’t believe the Rainbow Gathering has occurred in Oregon before.
“Typically they choose National Forest Land," says Jim Whittington of BLM. "They’ll make an announcement shortly. ... We’ll look at impacts and coordinate with other agencies to accommodate. It happens every year, there are a lot of people with experience working with this.”
According a website associated with the Rainbow Gathering, they have been meeting on forest land since 1972 where they had a first gathering in Colorado. The purpose is described as a way of coming together to support the environment and peaceful negotiation with each other and the Earth.
It describes itself this way: “The largest non-organization of non-members in the world. We have no leaders, and no organization. To be honest, the Rainbow Family means different things to different people,” according to the unofficial site, WelcomeHome.org. "Welcome home" signs are posted at the entrance to the gathering places.
“I think it's safe to say we're into intentional community building, non-violence, and alternative lifestyles. We also believe that Peace and Love are a great thing, and there isn't enough of that in this world,” the site continues to say.
The gatherings do, however, represent challenges for those officially tasked with caring for the forest, according to Whittington. “Anytime you have a mass gathering on public lands, there’s impacts,” Whittington says, adding that the primary concern is getting the word out about being careful with fire. “The big thing is that it’s always in the summer which is fire season. We make sure if the danger is high that we get the word out.”
However, Whittington says his agency, as well as the U.S. Forest Service, have staffed up for the summer to deal with the number of people planning to be in Oregon for the total solar eclipse on Aug. 21. “That path of totality crosses right through Oregon. There’s going to be any number of people. All the campgrounds are sold out.”
As a result, Whittington says the Rainbow gathering which might seem daunting in any other year, is not so concerning. “We’ll be OK here. I think we’re doing a good job with the big stuff. Rainbow is going to be a minor variation of the eclipse.” He says they’ve been planning since last year.
Meantime, the Rainbow Family group is expected to announce its location shortly so those who wish to attend can be ready. It’s informal Facebook Pages indicate scouts have been looking for spots throughout Southern Oregon and that the location will be spread through the group.
In Ashland, those planning on attending have been arriving since late spring in order to be ready to attend the gathering. Many have also been working on marijuana grow sites to earn money, according to several sources who did not wish to be identified.
They indicated the gathering is expected to be well attended, as many are coming for it and then planning to stay through the eclipse six weeks later. “It’s an important summer. This is good timing to celebrate the earth and peace. We need it now,” said a young man in his 20s, originally from New York who did not wish to give his name. He acknowledged that the rumor is the gathering will occur in Southern Oregon but he was not clear on its exact location.
Meanwhile organizers on social media and the unofficial website maintain the mission is one of peace, despite reports of drug use and alcohol consumption at gatherings. Police would not officially express concern about it, but coordinating agencies acknowledged that many people in an outdoor setting for a week are worth keeping an eye on. “There’s a lot of planning. That’s been brought up as something to be cognizant of,” says Whittington.
However, organizers of the Rainbow Gathering maintain there have been no major problems due to their mission. “Many of our traditions are based on Native American traditions, and we have a strong orientation to take care of the the Earth. We gather in the National Forests yearly to pray for peace on this planet,” according to its website.
— Email Ashland freelance writer Julie Akins at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/@julieakins.