LANDER, Wyo. - Rainbow Family participants are still picking up after this summer's gathering in the Cowboy State, but a local U.S. Forest Service official said the crew's effort is purely "cosmetic" and should not be confused with rehabilitation.
The Rainbow Family has developed a reputation over the years for meticulously cleaning up after the gatherings, but District Ranger Tom Peters is concerned there will be some lasting scars from the group's most recent jamboree on the southwestern slope of the Wind River Mountains.
A Rainbow Family participant, however, said the cleanup procedures are based on years of experience and n contrary to what local officials say n are based on sound ecology. And the results will speak for themselves in a short period of time.
"It is cleanup," Peters said. "But it certainly is not rehabilitation by any stretch of the imagination. And it is not re-naturalization, which is a term they use and I'm not really sure what that means. But it is cleanup. I would describe it as cosmetic cleanup. They're taking out the trash."
The strategy employed by the Rainbows so far has been to collect the garbage and otherwise "cover things up," Peters said.
"They're covering their compost pits with a little bit of soil, which could attract bears," he said. "They've covered up slit trenches without really cleaning anything. They've covered up fire pits with branches and trunks of trees. These folks interchangeably use 'cleanup' and 'rehab,' and they like to use rehab, but based on what I'm seeing, it's not rehab."
One particular fire pit n which Peters described as the most "egregious" example of how the group did not follow the operating plan for the gathering n was 42 feet in diameter and dug four feet deep in the center.
The typical rules for fire pits on Forest Service lands are to make the rings no more than 10 to 12 feet in diameter, and keep them on the surface, he said.
"I was told they put watermelon rinds underneath, and put soil on top and then placed pine needles and lodgepole pines on top, and placed on top of that dead and downed materials like needles and pine cones from the forest," Peters said. "It's really nothing more than covering things up."
But one Rainbow participant who helped clean up a few sites in the past said the procedures Peters described are not simply cosmetic; rather, they serve a few functions, not the least of which is promoting regrowth of vegetation down the road.
"The basic procedure is to break it up and re-level the area, and if necessary you seed it. But the new seeds don't take until the rains come," said Sue Bradford of Missoula, Mont.
Bradford spent about a week at this summer's gathering near Dutch Joe. The congregation drew an estimated 7,000 participants in the first week of July, but most have since left the area, save the 30 or so people who are cleaning the site.
The reason for scattering downed trees, leaves, pine needles and branches over the fire pits, Bradford said, is to prevent cattle and other forest users from setting up there and trampling the area before it regrows.
"The duff retains moisture and is full of local seeds, and it prevents the ground underneath from drying out, and it also helps it blend into the landscape," Bradford said. "It's just like mulching your garden. The natural mulch is the forest litter under the tree canopy."
Plants and paths
But Peters said one of the pitfalls related to excavating large areas like the Rainbows did is that it opens the door for invasive plant species to come in and outcompete the native plants.
"Thistles, for example, move into disturbed areas," Peters said. "It's not a native plant, but it outcompetes the plants that are native. And we want to manage the forest for native plants."
Officials with the Bridger-Teton National Forest will monitor for invasive plants in these areas in the coming years, he said.
Another concern is that the multitude of footpaths that were worn into the meadow from the several thousand participants could become permanent parts of the landscape, Peters said.
But Bradford argued the Rainbow Family has tried and true methods for addressing just that worry.
Before the cleanup crew leaves, it will block all of the entries to the paths with brush, she said. And the minor foot trails will disappear, as long as people stop using them.
"We've found over the years that foot traffic doesn't really have a deep impact," Bradford said. "It doesn't harm the roots, only the grass. It's a superficial impact that looks usually worse than it is. As soon as it starts raining, you will see regrowth."
Peters worries, however, that some of the trails are so well-worn they could become new ATV routes, which would almost ensure their permanence.
Pinedale resident and rock climber Wes Gooch frequents the area where the Rainbow cleanup is happening, often on his way to climb the famous Cirque of the Towers. Gooch visited the Rainbow Family camp at the height of the gathering, helping to look for his friend, Garrett Bardin, who'd gone missing. Bardin was later found dead of an apparent suicide.
Gooch said it was evident, even during the gathering, that the Rainbow participants took the importance of cleaning up after themselves to heart.
But some of the construction and excavation they did is bound to leave lasting scars, he said.
"As far as I'm concerned, they're really good abut picking up trash," Gooch said. "But those big pits, and some of the structures they built, I don't see how they'd be able to return those areas back to the way they were. I saw about five or six pits for drum circles, and lots and lots of campfire rings."