A year after 27,000 people camped on Indian Prairie near Prineville, the land shows no signs that they were ever there
Thursday, July 9 1998
By Gordon Gregory, Correspondent, The Oregonian
PRINEVILLE -- Sitting amid a cluster of blue forget-me-nots and looking over the green lushness of the great meadow, Ochoco District ranger Susan Skalski recalled what the place looked like one year ago.
Instead of the waist-high grasses and the scattered flashes of red Indian paintbrush and yellow lomatium, the expanse was marred by bare dirt paths crisscrossing the soggy meadow.
Tarps had been stretched between trees. Tents of all shapes and colors dotted the 300-acre field. Trench latrines had been dug in the surrounding groves of larch and fir trees. Dust from the ceaseless traffic on the forest road and smoke from the many campfires clouded the mountain air.
Miles of water pipes and banks of mud ovens were scattered over the landscape.
And everywhere was a sea of humanity.
"It was pretty overwhelming," she said.
Indian Prairie, about 30 miles northeast of Prineville, was the site for last year's annual reunion of the Rainbow Family of Living Light. An estimated 27,000 people came and camped, creating headaches for many Crook County residents and worries for forest officials charged with protecting the environment.
Skalski and several other U.S. Forest Service employees were back to Indian Prairie this week and they were pleased at what they saw, or rather did not see.
"I'm impressed," Skalski said.
"I never thought this place would recover so quickly."
There was literally no sign that a year ago, this mountain meadow was effectively the second largest Oregon city east of the Cascades.
Although the exceptionally wet spring this year helped loosen the soil, compacted by footsteps, and by giving all the plants a boost, Skalski also gives a lot of credit to the Rainbow Family.
Hundreds of family members stayed weeks after the event decommissioning trails, repairing miles of fencing, removing all the ovens and fire rings, as well as every speck of the tons of trash.
They also removed all the abandoned vehicles and stray dogs left in the area.
"They had a genuine, sincere commitment to leaving the prairie better than they found it," said Terry Holtzapple, part of a team of Forest Service personnel who worked with the family.
Holtzapple, an archaeologist with the Ochoco Ranger District, said Rainbow Family members who stayed at the site weeks after the Fourth of July celebration to clean up and repair the area, knew what they were doing.
"They taught us some techniques for rehabing sites," she said.
Family gathers on Fourth
The Rainbow Family has been gathering every July Fourth weekend on national forest land since 1972. The family is not a classical organization. It is a loose association of people bound by a philosophy of life that embraces personal freedom, environmental respect and communal love. They also reject consumerism and competition for personal gain.
For committed Rainbow members, the annual gathering is a spiritual celebration, as well as an opportunity to experience a type of cooperative living they believe can teach society important lessons.
This summer, they met on the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in northern Arizona. Most of the estimated 25,000 visitors left after the July Fourth climax, according to Faith Duncan, part of a Forest Service team that handles the annual gathering.
She said about 5,000 people are remaining at the site for the cleanup.
Two people were cited this year because the group refused to get a special use permit the government says is required. The Forest Service thinks that the lack of a permit means that this year's gathering was illegal, although Duncan said no one knows what, if any, repercussions that will have.
Five people cited
Five people were cited last year because the group also failed to get a permit for the Ochoco National Forest. But when one participant signed the permit, the case against the five was dropped.
Duncan said the permit is important because it allows the agency to set health, safety and environmental requirements.
"It's to reassure that all those needs will be met," she said.
The Rainbow Family has repeatedly clashed with the Forest Service over the issue, arguing that the family has a constitutional right to gather on public lands. And family members say they know how to protect the land and to provide participants with essential services and do not need the bureaucratic blessing.
Ochoco Forest officials were impressed by the rather obscure yet sophisticated infrastructure of the Rainbow Family. And while they think authorities need to be fully involved from the onset, they say the family is able to take care of itself.
Bruce Cheney, Ochoco District fire management officer who also helped oversee last year's event, said it became apparent that the old-timers among the Rainbows had tremendous influence over the group.
"If you look under the surface, they're very organized," he said.
Cheney said the group was able to provide its own security, food service and medical aid, as well as its own social services. People who needed special care or attention were taken care of, he said.
"It was kind of impressive to me," he said.
Cheney also said that the gathering showed him and others on the Ochoco just how special Indian Prairie is. The gentle beauty, combined with the size and resilience of the place, was made more apparent by watching thousands of strangers come to visit.
"It made us appreciate what this thing is," he said of the meadow.
Cheney expects the Ochoco will begin to manage the area more for its beauty and recreational appeal than it has in the past. Citing a clear-cut on the edge of the meadow, Cheney said, "We probably won't do that again."
"It's something we've taken kind of for granted."
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