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Rainbows’ impact a major worry

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A sign on a tree said Rainbow Family members should not bathe within 100 feet of any of the area's streams. A short distance away, one of the family's multitudinous dogs, a large one, was depositing droppings within 10 feet of a stream. A young man threw handfuls of forest debris on them.

The scene Friday may be symptomatic of impacts on the environment of the Uinta Mountains created by the Rainbow gathering, which at its height on Friday drew about 9,000 hippies, street people, curious folks and musicians to the Utah-Wyoming border.

While Rainbows were making some efforts to protect nature, the sheer number of people, dogs, kitchens and latrines — and human and animal waste not in latrines — were a concern for forest biologists. So was the potential for silt in the local streams.

"The hiking trails that were created by that huge number of people in the meadow . . . will need drainage work done on them," said Becky Banker, information officer with a National Forest Service incident management team.

Although forest managers told Rainbows where to build bridges so people wouldn't be splashing through streams, and a host of small log bridges were lashed together, the runoff from people or dogs that got into streams and from eroding trails could harm the area's cutthroat trout.

The species is classified as sensitive, a stage just below threatened. The trout spawned recently. If the eggs were covered by silt from runoff, they could be smothered, said Bernard Asay of the forest's Evanston District, interviewed at the scene Wednesday.

Although signs throughout the encampment warned members not to wash within 100 feet of streams, for some the message was unclear. A "Gathering Consciousness" flier handed out told Rainbows, "Use a bucket to take your bath 60 feet away from the water sources."

"There's soil compaction on several sites, due to the kitchen, trader circle and parking," noted Banker, a Forest Service employee normally stationed in Harrisburg, Ill. As of Sunday, 4,500 remained at the site "so it's not over yet."

A major concern, Banker added, "the human waste on site. . . . Certainly the latrines themselves are a concern, but there is also a good deal of waste on the surface."

The permit signed by Rainbow representatives calls for them to perform reclamation of the site, she said. "They haven't even started that yet," so long-term impacts are unknown.

Forest Service experts will be evaluating the potential damage, she said.

Meanwhile, Summit County health officials tested the spring water that has been piped through the encampment by hose and PVC tubing. They "found that even the filtered water had (coliform) problems, and they were advising everybody to boil their water," she said.

According to Banker, illegal parking resulted in many traffic citations, and sometimes vehicles were towed because they were blocking roads.

What kind of rehabilitation work can the forest expect? If the past is an indication, the Forest Service may end up doing much of it, at taxpayers' expense.

"Their idea of rehab is to take a stick and scratch it," said John MacIvor, district ranger for the Springerville Ranger District, Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, Arizona. The forest hosted the 1998 Rainbow Family Gathering. He estimated attendance at 29,000, far larger than the event that is now winding down in Summit County.

The stick-scratching was the family's attempt to rip out a road they had created in a region that was not supposed to have a road.

Their idea of road-rehabilitation was, "They got 200 naked people" with sticks, and that didn't work. Then they rented a small tractor, and "that guy was just bouncing across the top" of the road.

"They tried," he said in a telephone interview from his home in Nutrioso, Ariz.

Finally, MacIvor had to use a bulldozer to obliterate the road. Rainbow people tried to tell him that wasn't necessary. "I said, 'If you were really serious about all this stuff, you'd pay me for my 'dozer time.'

"And they did."

They sent him three certified checks to pay for the bulldozer rental, which had cost $65 an hour. They were made out to him personally so he had to deposit the money into the federal treasury. But they did not cover the cost of the bulldozer crewmen's pay.

"They cut an awful lot of my fences, and I finally had to send a crew out to mend them because they absolutely didn't fix them." Many man-hours were expended to "fix stuff they didn't fix."

Also, the Forest Service "had to fill in a bunch of latrines they had missed."

Later an unusual crop sprouted, thanks to certain Rainbow habits. "The next year, we had about 200 to 300 marijuana plants come up," MacIvor said.

The plants grew from seeds dropped by smokers or left in the soil when they put out their joints. The Forest Service had law enforcement officers get rid of the unusual vegetation.

Apache-Sitgreaves has no lasting scars other than the road rehabilitation (still not healed), and the Rainbows did pay for some of the work.

"All in all, I'd give them a D," MacIvor said. Not a high grade, "but it's still passing."

E-MAIL: bau@desnews.com