In the forest just outside of Dahlonega, a Cold War-style standoff is being played out on a minute scale, each side unwilling or unable to give an inch of leeway in a battle that has been going on since 1972.
But this standoff isn’t the type that pits two armies waving different flags against each other: it’s a silent war of willful noncompliance between the Rainbow Family of Living Light and the U.S. Forest Service.
Thousands of people nationwide from the leaderless Rainbow Family have been converging on the Bull Mountain area of the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest outside of Dahlonega to celebrate together as they have in different forests each year for the past 40 years.
This week three FCN reporters spent the day in the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest observing interactions between Rainbow Family members and law enforcement, and talking about what has happened in the past weeks.
Boots on the ground
On June 22, just one week after the Rainbow Family announced that the Bull Mountain area would be the gathering point for the 2018 gathering, a town hall meeting was held by the Lumpkin County Sheriff's Office to discuss the Rainbow Family and the possible ramifications from the gathering with the public.
At that meeting, Lumpkin County Sheriff Stacy Jarrard explained the history of the Rainbow Family, and stated to gathered community members that like with any large crowd they expected only a percentage of the gathered people to break the law or cause problems.
"Ninety percent of the people that will gather here will cause no problems, but just like any gathering, it don't matter what it is, there is usually a percentage who will cause problems, which causes the rest of the organization to look bad," Jarrard said to the crowd.
Later in that meeting, Jarrard mentioned that they had seen marijuana arrests go up in the county since the gathering began, but he was unwilling to attribute the jump specifically to the gathering.
A daily update on the gathering sent out by the Forest Service on June 28 states that since June 12 the Forest Service’s Incident Command Team has recorded 493 incidents, written warnings, citations and arrests at the gathering site.
Forest Service’s Incident Commander Joseph McGallicher said that of that reported number they have made 14 arrests and issued 82 citations for illegal drugs, vehicle violations, natural resource violations and public safety violations.
He said that to his knowledge the relationship between the ICT and the Rainbow Family is good, and they are willing to negotiate problems as they arise.
According to Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest supervisor Betty Jewett, McGallicher’s 30-officer team is similar to units brought in to deal with forest fires and other natural disasters. She said that unlike those other ICTs, McGallicher’s officers are a blend of local Lumpkin County law enforcement and deputized Forest Service members.
"They are there to do law enforcement and enforce our policies and regulations ... And I think that this has been a great example of us working together to protect and serve," Jewett said.
Jewett and McGallicher both stated that because the Rainbow family is technically unauthorized to be on the land, and have not signed any legal documents, they must police the gathering for infractions as they happen.
Of the Rainbow members that spoke with FCN, the attitude was that with some exceptions they have been treated fairly by law enforcement.
One Rainbow member, James Wilson of Cave Junction, Oregon, said that he has had three interactions with the ICT, including one incident where guns were drawn on him after they found him legally carrying a gun. In each instance, Wilson said that he was treated fairly and professionally.
“They did draw guns on me, cuff me and put me in a car, but they weren’t rough and were very polite,” he said. "After they ran my information and talked to people, they let me go and pretty much apologized, but I totally understood that they were doing their jobs."
‘Balancing emotion with natural resources’
On Monday morning, representatives from the Forest Service met with about two dozen Rainbow Family members for a “town hall meeting” on what members consider the most important issue facing them – access to the site.
At the meeting, the Rainbow members sat or stood surrounding Jewett and District Ranger Andy Baker, asking questions and imploring the representatives to open a meadow a short walk down the trail for handicap accessible parking so elders and the disabled can better make it to the gathering from forest service road 28-1.
The meeting began with passionate pleas coming from a Rainbow Family member named Barry, who claimed that in negotiations before the gathering, Baker agreed to accommodate the elders and disabled.
"I hope that we can find common ground on this. We are not here talking on issues of politics, we are talking about the health and safety of our handicapped people," Barry said.
Jewett responded to the group that the situation between them is not political, but part of the bureaucratic process under which the forest is regulated.
"I myself am governed by rules and regulations," Jewett said. "And I would truly love to give you that meadow ... But for me to give you that meadow, legitimately, without breaking my regulations or violating the authority I have, it has to be under a permit."
After Jewett's response and several other speakers, a tall, skinny man with short cornrows named Savage announced to the group that he would sign a permit if it allowed his family to get the help he needed. But he was quickly shouted down from a chorus of "No's" from all sides.
According to Ryan Smith, commonly called "The Professor" at gatherings, the issue of signing anything official for the gathering differs from Rainbow member to member, but most agree that it is an issue of accountability and upholding the first amendment.
He said that with the sheer number of people who come to the gatherings, they feel as if no one person can be held responsible for the actions of all involved.
"The joke goes, 'What's the best part of a Rainbow Gathering? Everyone's invited. What's the worst part of a Rainbow Gathering? Everyone's invited,’” he said. “So it’s a standstill where they are saying, ‘Sign this permit,’ but if we sign it not only are we not defending the first amendment, we are putting ourselves in a position where we are legally liable."
Smith said that many Rainbow members feel like the leniency and helpfulness of the law enforcement varies wildly from place to place and year to year.
"It depends who's in office, it depends what the forestry budget is, and it depends on what level of trust there is. But it’s often a political thing," he said.
After the meeting, Jewett remarked that even though it began tense, she thought it ended on a good note.
"I think that was a demonstration of the overall interactions. There is a lot of emotion and passion from the Rainbow Family,” She said. “From my standpoint, I'm trying to manage all that, as well as protect the public safety and the resources. It's hard to balance emotion with natural resources and safety."
The big picture
According to Jewett, the issue of the Rainbow Family’s unwillingness to sign any type of document is bigger than just issues like site access. She said it deadlocks the situation from both sides, because without a signed permit it's unclear what she can authorize the gathering to do in the National Forest.
"If they were under permit, I know what I can authorize them to do. But because they are refusing to sign a permit, and are unauthorized to be there, I need to know what the legal boundaries are,” she said.
In addition to the deadlock, she said that by “not escalating” the situation, they set a precedent for future groups to use the site free of consequence.
"Why are they allowed to bring that many people, for whatever kind of reason, and no one else is?" she said. "It puts me in a real awkward predicament, because I could have 10,000 ATVers show up and want to do the same ... and they could say the same things, like, 'We will protect the land, clean up the land,' but the only way I can protect the land … is do the same thing we are doing now."
In the recent past, Jewett said they have had to adopt similar rules and procedures, like last year when thousands swarmed national parks for the total eclipse or when ATVers and Jeepers degraded trails.
"We closed roads, made people walk, and closed off certain areas because we had to anticipate that large numbers people,” Jewett said. “... We just don't want people to fall off the side of the mountain in their vehicles."
As of Thursday morning, Jewett said that they came to a compromise with the Rainbow Members’ issue of access to the site, granting them three shuttle passes to take people up and down one of the closed roads.
"People want to make it a political thing, but it's truly not. It's about public safety and about protecting the resources,” she said. “I don't want to prevent them from being there but I also don't want them to hurt the resources, or to violate any rules and regulations, because we live here; they leave."