The annual hippie festival known as the Rainbow Gathering is setting up camp in the upper Lochsa River basin, but the counterculture community known for its adherence to peace, love and inclusion is fractured over how seriously to take the threat of COVID-19.

A large contingent of the community believes the gathering that culminates in a prayer for world peace should be postponed in light of the pandemic. According to posts on Facebook and other sites, hundreds of people have agreed not to attend this year, including many who run the kitchens and other critical infrastructure needed to support the large gathering. Many say they plan to “Om from home,” in an effort to stay healthy.

Others have vowed to press on and proceed with the campout that runs July 1-7, with some participants arriving early and others staying after the official conclusion.

Cases of COVID-19 are on the uptick in Idaho and several other states as social distancing recommendations and stay-home orders are sunsetting. But both Idaho and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are still advising against mass gatherings that attract participants from disparate locations.

The Rainbow Family of Living Light typically holds a gathering every year on land managed by the U.S. Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management. But members of the Rainbow community typically refuse to obtain special-use permits generally required for large gatherings and insist they have no leaders and are not an official organization.

Hank Heusinkveld, a spokesman for the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest, said a team of agency officials typically organized to battle small wildfires has been set up to help manage the gathering, but agency officials remain in the dark about the community’s intentions, including the exact location of the event.

Several social media posts indicate it could be held near the mouth of Post Office Creek, about 70 miles from both Kooskia to the west and Missoula, Mont., to the east. Other potential sites include Elk Summit and Packer Meadows.

“We are prepared to manage the event with a Type-III Incident Management Team consisting of various resource and law enforcement specialists,” Heusinkveld said in a statement emailed to the Tribune. “We are communicating with local law enforcement, communities, and other agencies in communities that may be selected for the gathering to identify local concerns and needs that could be affected by a gathering of this size.”

Idaho County Sheriff Doug Giddings said his deputies are aware of the gathering and have had contact with some of the early arrivers. He said he doesn’t foresee any serious problems.

“They’re not a dangerous group,” he said. “They’re just a bunch of naked old men smoking pot.”

Kayeloni Scott, a spokeswoman for the Nez Perce Tribe, said organizers of the gathering have not communicated with tribal leadership. The tribe’s executive committee released a statement outlining several concerns with the gathering, including the potential spread of the viral illness and the possible impact to local health care facilities.

The tribe also expressed concern that some sites, such as Packer Meadows, a traditional camas gathering spot for Nez Perce people, would suffer damage from a large gathering.

Barker may be contacted at ebarker@lmtribune.com or at (208) 848-2273. Follow him on Twitter @ezebarker.

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