Remember a year ago, when Montana’s then-Governor Marc Racicot declared a “state of emergency” because 20,000 hippies were predicted to come here? The final destination for the Rainbow Family of Living Light’s Annual Gathering had finally been announced, and it was to be high in the mountains of the Big Hole drainage. Racicot, fearing for the public’s health and safety, thought it might be necessary to call out the National Guard, which can only be done if a state of emergency has been declared. Spurred on by the governor’s alarmist move, the mainstream media brutalized the Rainbows in some of the most biased reportage in recent memory. Joining in the fray, some conservation organizations bashed the Rainbows for refusing to cooperate with the U.S. Forest Service’s “group use” permit requirements, which the Rainbows said contradicted their Constitutional right to free assembly. Dire predictions of mass medical emergencies overwhelming local hospitals, raging wildfires, and environmental destruction ran rampant.
Personally, I thought Racicot was a far greater threat to the environment than 20,000 hippies could ever be, and said so in an Independent column (“Treasure State of Emergency,” June 29, 2000). Given Racicot’s policies on game farms, toxic wastes, mining reclamation, stream restoration, water quality, and a host of other environmental issues, it seemed only logical that if the National Guard was called out to protect the environment, they ought to start with the Governor’s Office. Having never been to a Rainbow Gathering, I, like the governor, was merely speculating based on what I read or heard about the Rainbows. Unlike the governor, and after I wrote the column, I decided to head down to the Gathering and see it for myself.
After reading the news reports, I expected the roads to be packed with flower-covered Volkswagen buses trailing clouds of smoke. But on the drive from Butte to Wisdom, and through the tiny community of Jackson, the road was pretty much empty—just like always. The vast majority of the inhabitants we passed were, in fact, bovines, contentedly munching the rich meadows for which the Big Hole is justifiably dubbed “the land of 10,000 haystacks.” If the cows knew they were in a state of emergency, they gave no outward appearance of it. Nor, particularly, did anyone else. There were no visibly panicked locals, no police roadblocks, no flashing lights, no sirens. Just the gentle river, twining its way through the valley, with the pine-covered mountains rising in the distance. We wondered, in fact, if the whole event was a fiction.
Finally, some eight miles up a dirt road, there they were, the 20,000 hippies that threatened Montana—only many of the license plates on the array of mostly normal vehicles were, in fact, from Montana. Virtually everyone we passed smiled and said, “Welcome home” as we walked the two miles from the parking area to the camps and community kitchens dispersed in the thick lodgepole forest. Various paths wound throughout the Gathering and the methods by which 20,000 people lived, cooked, ate, got clean, disposed of wastes and filtered water were both amazing and ingenious. Miles of small PVC pipe delivered clear spring water to the camps, where it was run through standard, home-sized, water filters. Tiny lodgepole bridges were temporarily constructed where paths went over streams or bogs, which were marked “off limits” to protect the riparian zones. In spite of a vast number of dogs, there was no sign of their droppings, nor did I ever see even a single cigarette butt laying by the trails. Some grass was trampled and the paths were getting a lot of use, but most of it was by foot traffic and none of it seemed severe. It sounds incredible, but it’s true. The Rainbow Gathering, with an estimated 23,000 in attendance, was by and large cleaner than many of our regularly-used state or federal camp sites.
On the way out, I took pictures of the clear condition of the streams draining the encampment, and felt like the Rainbows were following their promise to “live lightly” on the land. But time would tell. Now, a year later, Dennis Havig, the Wisdom District ranger says, “There were 23,000 people here and you can find virtually no trash.” As for the trampled grass, Havig says, “There’s an aspect of diminished vegetation, but you’d have to look hard to see the damage. The untrained eye isn’t going to see it.” In the end, it turns out that the Rainbows didn’t trash Montana’s environment.
It would be great if the same could be said of our former governor. While the Rainbow impacts are all but gone, the unreclaimed mines, poisoned waterways, and toxic wastes resulting from Racicot administration policies will be with us for decades and will cost tens of millions of public dollars to clean up. Perhaps the lesson for Montanans here is that we shouldn’t leap to judge people by how they appear to us—or by how the media presents them to us. By that standard, Racicot was the popular, charismatic leader and the Rainbows were the alien threat to our safety and environment. But in the end, judging by their actions and the outcomes, just the opposite turns out to be true. Our former governor now lives in Washington, D.C., and represents energy conglomerates trying to keep deregulation from being overturned. Meanwhile, the Rainbows are planning another Annual Gathering—this time somewhere on the Washington-Idaho border—and I’m betting they will live lightly on the land again.
When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski contributes to the Missoula Independent as its political analyst.