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Forest Service turns away Rainbow campers

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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) — The U.S. Forest Service has turned dozens of campers away from a Rainbow Family gathering in the Monongahela National Forest, saying the counterculture group has not signed a group-use permit for the event.

Although the gathering does not officially begin until June 25, campers have already begun streaming into West Virginia. The Rainbows estimate as many as 17,000 people could attend the event.

On Wednesday, a team of Forest Service officers began turning campers away, citing a noncommercial use permit for the park that is required for groups of 75 or more.

"We're not asking them to do anything we wouldn't ask any other large group to do — the Boy Scouts or a large family reunion," team spokesman Steve Stine said Thursday.

The U.S. Forest Service has been trying to regulate the Rainbows' activities since the gatherings started in 1972, but only since 2003 has it succeeded in issuing the group a permit for what previously had been officially illegal events.

The Rainbows say they have no leadership, only unofficial elders and organizers, and decide everything by consensus at council meetings. Most refuse to acknowledge they need a permit to freely assemble on public land. Officials want to make sure that parking and camping do not threaten environmentally sensitive areas. They also want to ensure that emergency vehicles have access and that sanitary facilities meet state and local regulations.

But Rockie, a camper who like most Rainbows would not give her real name, believes the Forest Service is trying to stop the gathering through intimidation.

"We are not hurting anyone and we respect the land," she told The Inter-Mountain newspaper of Elkins.

A similar permitting problem arose in California's Modoc National Forest last year, when more than 16,000 self-described hippies from at least 40 states and eight nations attended a gathering.