PRINEVILLE, Ore. - (Update: Update; formal news release, USFS working with group on required special use permit)
The group known as the Rainbow Family of Living Light is expected to soon draw up to 30,000 visitors to a spot near John Day in Eastern Oregon, the first such national gathering in the region in 20 years, and Central Oregon law enforcement are advising residents to be ready for the early-July traveler influx and its impacts.
Here's the announcement received Friday from Forest Service officials:
National Rainbow Gathering to be Held on the Malheur National Forest
John Day, Ore. – Forest Service officials announced today that The Rainbow Family of Living Light has chosen to hold their 2017 Annual Rainbow Gathering on the Malheur National Forest, on the Blue Mountain Ranger District. The gathering site will be located at the Flagtail Meadow off of Forest Service Road 24 near the towns of John Day and Seneca, Oregon.
The Rainbow Gathering could draw anywhere from 10,000 -- 30,000 people. Participants are beginning to arrive and officials expect the attendance to peak the week of July 4th.
The Rainbow Family is a loose-knit group of people without leadership or organization who participate in a national gathering once a year. Attendees come from across the country. Since 1972, the event has taken place on a different national forest during a two-week period surrounding the Fourth of July holiday.
Any event of this size can have significant impacts on local communities, natural resources, traffic, and visitors. Local businesses can expect to see large numbers of Rainbow Family participants visiting stores, buying food and supplies along routes to the gathering site.
“We are working closely with the local community to raise awareness about the event and plan accordingly before the majority of participants arrive,” said Ryan Nehl, Agency Administrator and Malheur National Forest Deputy Forest Supervisor. “Ensuring public safety, minimizing impacts to local communities, and protecting natural resources will be our top priorities.”
Because of the magnitude of this event, the Forest Service has established an incident management team consisting of natural resource specialists, law enforcement officers, health and safety coordinators, and community liaisons. The incident management team is coordinating closely with county officials and law enforcement officers to provide for public safety and resource protection.
The gathering will take place under the conditions and guidelines provided through a Forest Service Operating Plan addressing public health and safety concerns, minimizing impacts to natural resources, and outlining post-event rehabilitation procedures.
Once the incident management has established its official command post, contact phone numbers will be provided so that members of the public, business owners, and visitors can ask questions and share concerns.
Earlier Thursday, a post to the 2017 Oregon Rainbow Gathering page said "consensus has been reached on a site" and offered directions heading south from John Day past the Star Mountain rest area, then west on the Izee-Paulina Road 12 miles, with a few more turns to the field where the gathering is planned.
Another Facebook page about another Rainbow gathering said it’s set for July 1-7, and a map on the page indicated a spot just south of the Ochoco National Forest. However, that is for a much smaller gathering in southeast Crook County, according to police.
Wheeler County Sheriff Chris Humphreys issued a public information bulletin earlier this week, advising that 20,000 to 30,000 people attended the last such gathering in the area, on the Ochoco National Forest in 1997. He referred to the Rainbow Family as “a loosely affiliated group of individuals committed to principles of non-violence and egalitarianism.”
Humphreys said the Rainbow Family has been choosing its event venue, which they believe is “likely to be on USFS lands in northern Grant County,” and he said local, state and federal agencies will work on a coordinated response to the event. (The newly outlined location is in the southern part of the county.)
"The Rainbow Family does not have centralized leadership, does not obtain proper permits and does not usually provide details about the location or activities of the event to law enforcement," the sheriff added.
But Forest Service spokesman Stephen Baker in Portland told NewsChannel 21 Friday the agency requires the Rainbow Family gathering to have a special use permit.
“We are currently working with the group to comply with his requirement,” he said. “All group events larger than 75 (people) are required to have a special use permit and operation plan to ensure safety and mitigate resource impacts.”
Humphreys noted the last national gathering in the area had “substantial impacts to the forest,” as well as on state highways and nearby communities, from law enforcement to medical and social service needs.
“Expect increased vehicle traffic and hitchhiking through our area,” he wrote, as well as encountering lost and/or stranded motorists looking for the event.
Crook County also had a smaller, regional gathering of about 350 people in the summer of 2012.
This time, Humphreys said officials believe many of the group members will choose to stay in the area to observe the Aug. 21 eclipse.
Humphreys said people should watch for more theft or criminal mischief, especially affecting merchants of food, beverages or clothing. They also warned of potential petty theft of items on private property, if they can be seen from or are in walking distance of major roads. Another possibility: strangers trespassing on your property looking for food, gas, water or shelter.”
The sheriff asked that residents report any unusual or suspicious people to authorities as soon as possible.
Prineville police already are seeing Rainbow members coming through town, heading to the Grant County gathering.
Prineville Police Chief Dale Cummins told NewsChannel 21 residents and businesses should be vigilant of any petty theft or shoplifting.
"With any group that size, there's going to people that have problems that commit crimes and are associated with the group, so the fact the group is in town makes us aware they're maybe some people that could cause problem in town," Cummins said.
Erickson's Thriftway Store Manager John Amodeo said his store is prepared for the large group as they tend to shoplift or will Dumpster dive for food.
Cummins said he plans to work with the Chamber of Commerce to make sure businesses are aware of the large group coming into Central Oregon.