More than a week after the annual Rainbow Gathering officially ended, a small crew is still at the national forest cleaning land.
The gathering of the Rainbow Family took place in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest from July 1-7, but many people arrived early and stayed late. With attendance in the several thousands, rehabilitation of the forest is primarily focused on the ground vegetation.
Every year, the Rainbow Family — which anyone can join — select a national forest where they construct a temporary community. It includes numerous kitchens, a trading corridor, filtered water supplies, a children’s area, a large meadow for gatherings and a first aid camp — all scattered throughout a several mile wide section of the forest. While many had their own, personal reasons for attending, the gathering’s main focus was on the annual day of peace on the Fourth of July.
Jennifer Maziasz, recreation program manager with the U.S. Forest Service, is working with the remaining gatherers to rehabilitate the area. She’s a member of a forest service team that frequently checks in on the gatherers to answer questions and offer guidance.
“They’re not real familiar with our area — they’re from all over the county — so they have questions on a lot of different things,” Maziasz said.
The rehab is primarily focusing on forest floors that were compacted by visitors, as an estimated 5,000 to 7,000 people attended, Maziasz said.
The 20 to 25 remaining gatherers are laying organic matter, such as leaves, on these areas. They’re also resurfacing slopes that had stairs built into them. Reestablishing vegetation in compacted areas will prevent erosion.
Gatherers also expanded trails and footpaths that run through the forest and the main meadow. Before, some were about 12 inches wide. Now, some are as large as 12-14 feet wide. “It will take some time for that to grow back,” Maziasz said.
While rehabilitation isn’t expected to be done until July 23, all of the garbage has been removed from the forest.
But Maziasz said she can’t say cleanup was successful until it’s completely done. “From what I’ve seen so far, they’re working really hard to get it to that pre-gathering condition,” she said.
Members of the gathering said in earlier interviews that their motto is "leave no trace," which drives their cleanup work.
The USFS isn’t helping rehab or clear trash, but it has been testing water quality of nearby lakes during and after the gathering. The testing resulted in the closure of one lake because of unsafe bacteria levels, but it opened again several days later when levels went back to a safe level, Maziasz said.
The impact of the gathering has extended beyond environmental considerations. Some in a Rainbow Gathering Facebook group shared stories of tick diseases they received after staying in the heavily-wooded forest.
Reba Rice, CEO of the Northlakes Community Clinic with locations across northern Wisconsin, said they didn’t see an influx of gatherers with tick diseases, “which surprised us a little,” she said.
The Iron River clinic, located just miles from the gathering, saw only one case of a tick disease from a self-identified gatherer, Rice said.