Barry Adams has been battling the U.S. Forest Service for 35 years over what he believes is his personal right to use public lands to gather with others and pray for peace. It’s a battle that cost the Missoula man 90 days in a federal penitentiary in 2005 after a federal magistrate found him guilty of “unauthorized use of National Forest systems land without authorization when such authorization is required,” stemming from his participation in the 2000 Rainbow Family of Living Light Gathering, which drew tens of thousands to the remote forests above the Big Hole Valley.
“The Constitution of the United States gives us the right to peaceably assemble on public land,” says Adams, an aging but passionate self-described hippie who has attended almost every annual gathering since 1972. “If I feel called by the spirits to gather and pray and hold hands in a circle of peace with others, the government should not have the authority to permit or not permit that.”
But this year Adams has reason to be hopeful that his long quest for peace between the Rainbow Family and federal officials might finally be making progress. After a lengthy series of phone calls and e-mails between individuals from the Rainbow Family and federal authorities, Adams received notice in May that for the first time ever, federal law enforcement officials were preparing to exercise discretion in enforcing the group permit law, opening the door for what Rainbows and federal officials alike are hoping will be a more peaceful and harmonious Gathering.
“What we’re looking at here is something that’s going to occur on a yearly basis, however much we find it desirable or undesirable,” says Mark Rey, undersecretary for natural resources and environment for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, of the annual Gathering. “I’m a pragmatist, and so I’d like to see if we can create a situation where the results are desirable.”
Adams has argued since the first Rainbow Gathering in July of 1972 that the Rainbow Family isn’t an organized group but a collective of individuals who gather together to pray for peace. There are no official leaders or group structure, no official spokesperson and no formalized membership. Adams says individuals from the Rainbow Family make decisions—such as where to hold the Gatherings and where to dig the pit toilets—in family “circles” where everyone is invited take part in a discussion to reach consensus. No one in the Rainbow Family can obtain a group-use permit because they aren’t a group, Adams says, adding that leadership isn’t part of the Rainbow Family creed.
That philosophy has historically been hard for the government to come to terms with. Federal courts have consistently upheld that the law requires group-use permits for gatherings, and that the Forest Service has the authority to enforce that rule. Nonetheless, Rey has directed the agency to “use discretion” in enforcing that law at this year’s Gathering.
“What we’re proposing here is in the nature of an experiment; to see if by using our discretion we can have a gathering that is more harmonious, that does a better job of protecting the resources on the national forest and that costs the federal taxpayer less money to facilitate that happening,” Rey told the Independent June 11.
Rey sent a letter addressed to the “Rainbow Family Spring Circle” on May 4 laying out a five-point proposal: 1) the Rainbow Family would recommend two or three alternate locations for consideration “as soon as possible”; 2) the Forest Service would quickly evaluate the sites and give the Rainbow Family an answer before “Spring Council”; 3) The Spring Council would come up with an operating plan in advance of the Gathering that would be subject to “mutual modifications” between the Rainbow Family and the agency; 4) all laws will be enforced on the national forests; and 5) a “declaration of emergency will be for the purpose of addressing resource impacts.”
That last point is significant because in the past the agency has declared law enforcement emergencies in response to the Gatherings, leading to conflicts between gatherers and armed officers.
While he says the letter amounts to a major step in the right direction for the Rainbow Family, Adams isn’t convinced that Forest Service law enforcement officials are ready to “lay down their guns.”
“The real peace move here would be that if there was site that was acceptable to Forest Service and acceptable to the gatherers, then [law enforcement officials] will not be doing things like parading around inside the Gathering armed to the teeth with automatic weapons,” Adams says. “I would say that’s an incredible step.”
Forest Service Law Enforce-ment Director John Twiss says he’s hopeful that this year’s Gathering is less contentious; however, he adds that he doesn’t see an end to law enforcement’s oversight of annual Gatherings anytime soon.
“I don’t foresee in the long term that there would be a Gathering that wouldn’t have some law enforcement presence,” says Twiss, adding, “My hope is that over time, if cooperation increases, that that presence would be less and less. “
Twiss and Rey both told the Independent that if Gathering attendees follow the law they will be allowed to enter the Gathering without any kind of permit.
Adams couldn’t say for sure where this year’s Rainbow Gathering would be held, but he said the Spring Circle should commence by June 15 and a decision should be announced shortly thereafter (it’ll be somewhere in Texas, Arkansas or Oklahoma from July 1-7).
“I commend Rey and I even commend Twiss if their promise is carried through with,” Adams says. “The people who come to the Gathering are easy to get along with as long as they don’t feel like their rights are being stepped on. The Forest Service doesn’t need to spend taxpayer money babysitting hippies.”
More information on the 2007 Rainbow Gathering can be found at www.welcomehome.org.