Friday, July 7, 2017

Environmental Concerns of Rainbow Gathering at Malheur National Forest

One can only fully understand what this event is about by being fully immersed. Outside perspectives are constructed by conclusions drawn from hearsay, as well fragments of information dispersed by the media and other outsiders. I fully acknowledge that my own experiences are merely another fragment of that truth, but this is not my first time attending this event. However, it is the first time I have attended this event with a press pass and an open mind.

I have seen and read the gripes from locals, hunters, and ranchers about the potential environmental impacts of the Gathering. For every valid claim, another is sensationalized. There is no doubt in my mind that human interaction on that scale does have some impact on the immediate environment. Ironically, the same areas where concerns have been expressed regarding water quality being affected by the digging of latrines, human waste, as well as soil compaction from foot traffic are also the same lands that have been the source of controversy over permitting free-grazing cattle. Concerns about using small streams as water sources for the gathering are minuscule by comparison to massive irrigation operations to maintain grazing forage for nearby ranches. With that being said, I don't dismiss those concerns. These are without a doubt delicate habitats, and gripes from opposing ends of the spectrum are valid.

Inside the gathering, I witnessed a great deal of care that went into burying not only human waste, but pet waste as well. The spread of diseases from one canine to another, as well as canine predators in the area is taken seriously, and the community polices itself with these ethics. "Bury your shit" was scrawled everywhere, and made very clear that this was not only commonplace, but the standard. If someone was walking their dog by our camp, and it took a squat, they were told to bury it. If they did not have a shovel handy, one would be provided to them. The latrines are everyone's personal responsibility to maintain. The sanitary threats that they create are very real. Signs with cartoon poop, flies on cartoon poop, and flies on cartoon poop on a plate carefully illustrate that not covering your waste means it will draw flies, and those flies will then travel to food, creating health hazards. Latrines were constructed far from water sources, and hand washing was the standard before using water stations. The phrase "Don't touch your thing to the thing" was muttered constantly, mostly in reference to canteens and other containers not touching the spout of the water station.

Cow excrement was visible everywhere
On the other hand, while walking the woods, I witnessed massive cow patties everywhere. They were as much as part of the landscape as pine needles and twigs. In May, there was a story in the Oregonian about roughly a dozen dead cattle floating in the nearby Owyhee Reservoir that had died from lack of forage during the winter. Every low-lying wetland in the surrounding area was occupied by cattle.

While I have little doubt that 20,000 people traveling to the area will impact the land and water quality, efforts have been made to minimize that impact. Wetlands and creek areas were clearly marked as off-limits, not by the Forest Service, but by other members of the Rainbow Family. Camps, kitchens, even pets and foot traffic were encouraged to stay beyond 200 feet of all streams in an effort not to disturb nesting birds and spawning fish. While not everyone follows those rules, there was a great deal of respect for those areas. I saw woodpeckers feeding their young inside holes in trees only a few feet off the ground in busy areas, and adult trout swimming in Wickiup Creek, which runs along the gravel road where the parking areas were at the entrance of the gathering. I also saw Mule Deer and Antelope a few miles outside the National Forest area. I had heard concerns prior to the gathering about big game being driven out of the immediate area, but I also did not find it a coincidence that the big game I spotted was not within site of any cattle either.
Trout in Wickiup Creek

Having left with a majority of the participants on the 5th of July, I was not witness to the cleanup efforts, although I have many friends that stayed behind specifically to break down structures, remove trash, and restore the area to it's original condition. Soil compaction is unavoidable with that much foot traffic. The dust was unavoidable as well, and much of the vegetation from the immediate area will without a doubt suffer from the occupation of that many people. But for how long?

Gatherings have mixed reviews from public officials, but many have complimented the clean up efforts. The Salt Lake Tribune published an article after the 2003 Rainbow Gathering at the Wasatch-Cache National Forest that provided insight from several public officials. "The Rainbows did a good job of cleaning up the site and following through with their commitments to restore the site," said Stephen Ryberg, district ranger for the forest's Evanston and Mountain View districts.
"Things went well from a resource standpoint." Bob Swensen, Environmental Director for the Summit County Health Department concludes, "My opinion is, it looks as if no one had been there. I'd have to give them an 'A' for their cleanup."

The following letter is from a district ranger in nearby Prineville regarding the 1997 Rainbow Gathering was printed in an ad-free publication called "All Ways Free," which distributed without charge at the gathering.

Big Summit Ranger District
33700 Ochoco Ranger Station
Prineville, OR 97754
File Code 2720
Date July 28, 1997 
Rainbow Family of Living Light 
Dear Rainbow Family Participants, 
We have been extremely pleased with the Cleanup and rehabilitation efforts by the Rainbow Family volunteers following the 1997 Gathering on the Big Summit Ranger District. Your commitment to caring for the land is recognized in your thoroughness and attention to detail and the District appreciates your hard work and cooperation in meeting the resource objectives. 
When the number of Rainbow gathering participants rapidly decreased from some 15,000 to about 500 between July 8 and July 15, kitchens and camps were dismantled and activity areas were cleaned up very quickly Garbage was centralized; recycling and trash removal efforts were initiated and continued, until completed. 
Evidence of trails disappeared, water bars were constructed where necessary, and slash was scattered. Rocks were effectively dispersed from fire rings, circles, and ovens. Latrines, grey water, and compost areas were backfilled, kitchen structures were dismantled and little to no evidence remains of their locations. Compacted areas, particularly around the kitchens, were spaded and slashed and the heavy traffic areas around Welcome Home and drum circles were reseeded. In many areas, vegetation was recovering within two weeks following peak of the gathering. Fences were spliced and repaired. Abandoned vehicles were identified and towing was coordinated with the Forest Service and the Rainbow Family participants. 
Cleanup efforts and rehabilitation were thorough and occurred mostly within two weeks following the peak of the gathering. Our post-gathering walk-through inspections showed that the cleanup volunteers had high personal standards for completing the job.
Those of us on the Big Summit Ranger District enjoyed working with you before, during and after your gathering. Thanks again for your commitment to leaving Indian Prairie in excellent condition. 
District Ranger
The same publication that printed the above letter also includes images of the regrowth from the 2016 Vermont gathering site as it appears only a few weeks later, rich with green vegetation. While the environmental impacts and concerns are certainly significant, so should be the efforst to restore these natural areas to their original condition.

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