Angry Bayfield County residents confronted members of the Rainbow Family Gathering about doing what is seen as an end run around the federal permit processes during a community meeting in Iron River Thursday night.
Rainbows, as members of the gathering are known, stood their ground and addressed a variety of concerns about their upcoming weeklong Fourth of July get-together in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest south of Iron River.
Bayfield County Sheriff Paul Susienka presided over the informational meeting Thursday intended to let residents pose questions and concerns regarding the anticipated influx of thousands of people from around the country for the gathering.
Also on hand to answer questions were Jamie Davidson and Brad Turberville of the U.S. Forest Service, the agency primarily tasked with patrolling the event.
Questions surrounding the group’s lack of a permit to gather in large numbers on public land and concerns about costs to the county and sanitation dominated the discussion. Although most questions were addressed to the officials standing at the front of the 200-plus audience of locals, Rainbows and police officers, the Rainbows answered most of them.
A resident launched the meeting on a confrontational note, accusing the Rainbows of picking a community that couldn’t support them in their numbers and purposefully revealing their plans at the last second to prevent timely notification to local residents.
Many residents asked how such a large group — the Rainbows estimated they would number somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 during the first week of July — could be allowed to camp in Bayfield County without obtaining a permit.
Susienka said the county doesn’t have authority over the National Forest, and Davidson said the Forest Service has a permitting process for large groups and was working with the Rainbows to settle on a site plan.
But according to the Rainbows, they have no authorized representative who can legally sign a permit because they have no leaders. They also criticized the Forest Service’s 2019 site plan, saying it was flawed and too complicated.
Another point of public contention swirled around the cost to Bayfield County’s budget.
The sheriff’s office has expanded patrols in the area of Delta, and Susienka said the Forest Service has given the county money to cover overtime expenses. If the costs exceed that amount, the county can bill the difference so local taxpayers bear little if any expense.
Other questions focused on garbage disposal and sanitation. Although a Rainbow said members will pack out all their garbage for recycling or dumping at the local landfill — for which they will pay the fee — a resident said the landfill could only handle so much and can’t take it.
As for sanitation, the group said it treats water and uses a military slit trench method to build latrines, to which a resident remarked that he had to pay $450 to get a sewer permit and yet Rainbows could just dig trenches.
The meeting included much back-and-forth on several other topics as well, including how Rainbows or authorities would respond to the need for emergency medical services, quick access to the site in case of emergencies, clean-up, the impact on retailers and resolution of conflicts among the Rainbows.
Toward the end of the meeting, a resident asked Susienka to comment on the difference between thousands suddenly descending upon the county now and the throng of people who flocked to the Apostle Islands sea caves with little warning a few years ago.
Susienka said there were some similarities, and through organization and creativity the county would resolve all issues.
“This will work out for our community,” he said.
Although many residents at the meeting expressed distrust and discomfort regarding the gathering, others simply wanted more information and said the Rainbows should be welcomed.
In the words of one resident, both locals and Rainbows should appeal to their “highest angels” and not let fear take hold.
For more information about road closures in the vicinity of the Rainbow Family Gathering, which were updated Thursday, visit website fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/fseprd638284.pdf.