General Comments


Significant Governmental Interests With Respect to Rainbow Family Gatherings.

The Rainbow Family of Living Light organizes regular gatherings in the national forests to celebrate life, worship, express ideas and values, and associate with others who share their beliefs. The largest of these meetings is the annual Rainbow Family Gathering. The annual Gathering is held at an undeveloped site in a different national forest each summer and attracts as many as 20,000 people from across the Nation and around the world.

Approximately 130 respondents wrote that the Forest Service has not established a significant interest in requiring a special use authorization for Rainbow Family Gatherings. These respondents stated that concerns associated with Rainbow Family Gatherings have not materialized; that there has been no significant damage in 20 years of Rainbow Family Gatherings; that the Rainbow Family has had gatherings of up to a few thousand people for over a two-week period without major impact to the land or input from the Forest Service; that there is no reason to believe that any similar group would behave differently; and that reports of Rainbow Family Gatherings do not describe any adverse impacts associated with the Gatherings, which have less impact on forest resources than twelve Boy Scouts.

These respondents further stated that there is no hazardous situation, taking of an endangered species, or out of the ordinary resource damage associated with Rainbow Family Gatherings; that the forest is left in better condition after Rainbow Family Gatherings, unlike the way most campers and hunters leave public lands; that at the 1993 Rainbow Family Gathering in Alabama, campsites were carefully planned, garbage was neatly collected and recyclables separated, signs were posted so as to ensure no significant impact on trees, latrines were strategically placed and plainly marked, and an effort was made to notify all Rainbow Family members of the presence of endangered fresh water mussels in a creek at the site; that there has never been a serious illness or public health problem at a Rainbow Family gathering; that Rainbow Family Gatherings usually occur without adverse impact to public health, safety, land, or property; that the Rainbow Family does not need to be regulated by the Forest Service because it has an internal consensus process for regulating itself; that the Rainbow Family takes care of parking; water supply, kitchen hygiene, latrines, and camp safety; that the agency's concern for public health and safety is specious; and that considerations of public health are not related to the purposes of the rule.

Four respondents acknowledged that the annual Rainbow Family Gatherings have a significant impact on the national forests. One respondent stated that camping by any group the size of the annual Rainbow Family Gathering will necessarily have some noticeable impact on the land. Another commented that national forests should be protected and that Rainbow Family Gatherings have a detrimental effect on the plants and animals in the forests. A third acknowledged that Rainbow Family Gatherings take their toll on the ecosystem, and a fourth noted that the annual Rainbow Family Gatherings have a considerable impact on the undeveloped sites chosen for the Gatherings. One respondent noted that many Rainbow Family members required emergency room care during the 1993 Gathering and suggested that the Rainbow Family should arrange for community liaisons prior to the annual Gathering. Two respondents commented that water pollution is evident in the National Forest System: one respondent stated that all water on National Forest System lands should be tested; the other stated that Rainbow Family Gatherings must address the sufficiency of potable drinking water before the Gatherings take place.


Forest Service experience is that the Rainbow Family has encouraged gatherers to pick up trash, recycle, compost, protect water sources by not camping or washing near them, naturalize campsites and trails, use latrines, and bury waste.

The Rainbow Family also has shown a concern for sanitation at the Gatherings. Nevertheless, the annual Gatherings have a considerable impact on the national forest sites selected by the Rainbow Family and in some instances on public health and safety as well. Controlling or preventing adverse impacts on forest resources and addressing concerns of public health and safety are two purposes of this rule.

Typically, the Rainbow Family chooses an undeveloped site with open fields or meadows. Access to the site is limited. Backcountry eating, sleeping, and cooking facilities are set up for as many as 20,000 people. Parking must be available for their vehicles, which range from cars to double decker buses.

At the 1987 Gathering in North Carolina, for example, impacts included soil compaction and loss of vegetation in the paths to various camps and in the surrounding fields. At the end of the Gathering, there were four acres of fields and about eight miles of paths 12 to 25 feet wide with compacted soil and complete loss of vegetation. Only the latrines near the fields where activities took place were covered; latrines in outlying camps were left open with human waste exposed. The Forest Service had to complete rehabilitation of the site because the Rainbow Family had failed to rehabilitate it adequately. Garbage and trash were not always removed promptly from collection points and piled up. Although the garbage and trash were separated, they were mixed together in receptacles provided by the county. At the end of the Gathering, the Forest Service had to remove a dump truck load and a pickup truck load of garbage that had been left along the sides of the main road through the site.

A serious public health threat arose at the 1987 Gathering. At the site of this Gathering, many Rainbow Family members did not boil water from springs that were high in fecal coliform bacteria. During the week of July 1-4, many people had diarrhea and fever. As people at the Gathering became sick, they used the latrines less and less. Uncovered human wastes were scattered where people traveled and camped. Many people went barefoot and their stepping in uncovered human wastes helped transmit the disease. Hospitals in two states notified the Centers for Disease Control (CDC, now called the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) in Atlanta that cases of confirmed shigellosis had been detected among people who had attended the Gathering. Shigellosis is a highly contagious form of dysentery, caused by shigellae bacteria. The disease is transmitted by direct or indirect fecal-oral contact from one person to another or by contaminated food or water. Individuals primarily responsible are those who fail to clean adequately their fecally contaminated hands. Transmission by water, milk, or flies may occur as a result of direct fecal contamination. One need ingest only a small number of organisms to contract the disease, and symptoms normally appear within seven days.

Two CDC doctors visited the site of the Gathering the week after July 4 and interviewed a large percentage of the Rainbow Family members remaining at the site. The doctors estimated that 65 percent of those people had shingellosis. At the doctors' suggestion, the Forest Service closed the site to other members of the public from July 15 to 29 for health reasons. By the middle of August, 25 states reported outbreaks of shigellosis traced to people who had attended the Gathering. In early October, cases of the disease were still being reported in 25 states.

Forest Service reports of Rainbow Family Gatherings document adverse impacts associated with the Gatherings. Two of these reports, on the 1991 and 1992 annual Gatherings, were submitted by a respondent along with comments on this rulemaking.

The report on the 1991 Gathering in Vermont documents that site clean-up and rehabilitation were inadequate after the 1990 Gathering in Minnesota. Gatherers left cigarette butts and plastic twist ties on the ground, dumped glass bottles and metal spoons in compost pits, abandoned a 200-gallon water tank, and left latrines uncovered.

The report on the 1991 Gathering documents that while conducting site clean-up and rehabilitation inspections after the 1991 Gathering, agency officials found a large amount of human waste scattered throughout the woods, even though a sufficient number of well-constructed latrines were distributed throughout the Gathering site.

In addition, the 1991 report notes resource damage that resulted from the impact of large numbers of people using the area. Soil compaction occurred wherever human use was concentrated, that is, at the main meadow, kitchens, camps, and heavily used trails. Vegetation and duff layers in these areas were worn away. New trails made during the Gathering showed varying amounts of erosion. Soil was dug up and sloughed downhill, leaving tree roots exposed. Gatherers made trails down to brooks, often on steep slopes. Eroding soils from these trails threatened the stability and integrity of stream banks and water quality. In several places trails crossed historic rock walls. Heavy pedestrian traffic over the walls caused them to crumble and flatten. An archaeological site located on the trail from the front gate to the main meadow of the Gathering was damaged.

At the 1992 Gathering in Colorado, an insufficient number of latrines were dug at two areas with large concentrations of people (approximately 4200 total). Latrines that were dug at these areas were not placed at flagged locations, and some were too near open water. In general, latrine locations were not adequately marked, particularly at the beginning of the Gathering, which resulted in some surface deposition. Many latrines were not properly covered. No sanitation lime was available until one county health department worker donated 150 pounds to the Rainbow Family.

During the clean-up effort, however, all evidence of surface deposition was removed and all but a few latrines in remote locations were filled in correctly. Clean-up was reasonably orderly, but not timely. While all physical evidence of the Gathering was removed or rearranged to present a natural appearance, the quality of scarification and seeding of exposed soil was variable.

Twenty-seven acres of National Forest System lands in Colorado used for the 1992 Gathering were affected. Soil compaction and loss of vegetation occurred in areas of concentrated use. There were also several traffic and parking problems at the 1992 Gathering. Most of the access routes were steep, winding, single-lane gravel roads. The increased traffic and unfamiliarity of gatherers with these types of road conditions created a safety hazard.

CALM (Center for Alternative Living Medicine) is the group in the Rainbow Family entrusted with the medical care of Family members. At annual Gatherings, CALM sets up health units to treat gatherers' ailments and injuries. CALM represented that they could furnish more than basic first aid at the 1992 Gathering. Visits to CALM units by health department officials and local hospital staff revealed that CALM was equipped to provide only first aid. Many of the bandages at the units were old surplus military issue. Other supplies were limited. No protocol was established to deal with emergency situations. Because CALM was not equipped to deal with emergencies or injuries requiring more than basic first aid, 46 people attending the Gathering had to be treated at a local hospital.

The Department believes that it would be more effective and efficient for the Rainbow Family to address these types of medical and sanitation issues prior to the annual Gathering through the special use authorization process and through enhanced coordination with state and local authorities than on a spontaneous or post hoc basis.

Need for Law Enforcement

Listing of Comments

FS Regulation Page