Record crowds are expected at the Chattahoochee National Forest in Lumpkin County in coming weeks as a counterculture group holds its national gathering.
Members of the Rainbow Family of Living Light have already begun arriving in the Bull Mountain area, and attendance is expected to peak around the July 4 holiday, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Crowds are expected to range from 2,000 to 10,000 visitors.
Steven Bekkerus, public affairs officer for the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest, said the Forest Service has spoken with members of the Rainbow Family group and has been preparing for the crowds. The service has developed a resource protection plan for the area and has several traffic control measures and road closures planned to deal with increased traffic.
“There’s going to be several hundred, if not thousands, of vehicles coming into the area, so we’re very concerned about traffic safety,” Bekkerus said.
The group selects a different national forest every year for its annual event and has gathered in Oregon and Vermont in recent years. The group promotes community building and nonviolence, and their gatherings focus on praying for peace, according to the unofficial Rainbow Family’s Facebook group, which has more than 28,000 members.
Rob Savoye, who says the group has no official leadership, has been attending the gatherings since 1980. He is administrator of the Facebook group, lives in Colorado and will not be able to attend this year’s event. Savoye said when the gatherings began in 1972, the efforts were led by Vietnam War veterans advocating for peace. He said activities include a talent show and a July 4 gathering they call “Interdependence Day.”
For this event, people wake up early and stand in a circle in silence until about noon, when they start humming and chanting. Most people leave after the Interdependence Day event, Savoye said.
Bekkerus said the group will be gathered near the Jake and Bull Mountain Trail System, and while that trail system will stay open to the public, the Forest Service is expecting those trails to be crowded.
“There is going to be a lot of congestion. There might be other places that local residents want to look at as an alternative,” he said. “There are other bike trail and horse trail systems across the forest.”
The Forest Service has set up a webpage to answer questions about the gathering. Bekkerus said the Chattahoochee National Forest will see record crowds in early July, but the Forest Service has been working with several other agencies, including the Lumpkin County Sheriff’s Office, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and the Georgia State Patrol, to manage the event.
“We understand that there’s going to be impacts to our community and to our neighbors and other forest visitors,” Bekkerus said. “We’re working hard to minimize those effects, and all forest visitors are expected to obey federal, state and local laws and regulations.”
Savoye said the gatherings are a great place for activists to connect and get to know each other.
“Because we go and meet a lot of people who think like us, we call it recharging the batteries,” Savoye said. “The idea is we go to the gatherings, we celebrate peace and recharge our batteries so when we leave the gatherings and go back to our groups, we’re sort of motivated…It’s kind of fun hanging out with other activists.”
Savoye said the Rainbow Family has a group of people who stay after everyone else leaves to make sure the area is left clean.
Gatherers have a self-organized safety system, Savoye said. If someone has a problem, such as their child wandering off, they can yell “Shanti Sena,” and people around them will come and help.
Savoye encouraged people who are curious about the Rainbow Family to come to the gathering and meet people.
The Lumpkin County government issued a statement addressing the gathering, noting that neither the county nor the Forest Service is able to legally prevent the gathering because the First Amendment includes the right to peaceably assemble.
Lumpkin County Sheriff Stacy M. Jarrard will be hosting a town hall meeting about the gathering at 6 p.m. Friday, June 22, at the Lumpkin County Parks and Recreation department, 365 Riley Road, Dahlonega.