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HELENA — The Rainbow Family of Living Light plans to hold its annual national gathering in Montana in early July, and a scouting group currently is camping in the Elkhorn Mountains off of Crow Creek Road, checking out a possible site for anywhere from 7,000 to 30,000 people.

Cass Cairns, a spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service in Denver, said the group filed an operating plan with the Townsend Ranger District for the scouting group. The plan covers conditions they need to abide by while they’re in the area, including restoring the land to the way it was before they camped there. Right now they’re about six miles past Radersburg.

The Rainbow Family started in 1972 with a gathering that began on July 1 in Aspen, Colo. They’ve been called the largest nonorganization of nonmembers in the world, and pride themselves on having no leaders.

They advocate nonviolence and many adopt alternative lifestyles, with attendees ranging from doctors and lawyers to hippies and transients. They’re called Rainbow gatherings because of their diversity.

Cairns said the Rainbow Family has other scouting groups in Montana, but she didn’t know where. The scouters will take their findings back to a loose-knit council; one of the Rainbow Family's websites says the council will convene June 7 to 9 to make a decision on where to camp in Montana for about a week.

One unidentified Rainbow blogger said they’re looking in the Yaak and the Crazy Mountains.

“Those key members get together with those who have gone out and about, and they’ll go over the sites that are available and decide what sites to chose,” said Cairns, who worked with the Rainbow Family before.

Susan Lindsay lives in Radersburg, and she said they’ve already noticed Rainbow Family members pass through town on their way to the scouting camp. She said their small community is a little concerned about having a town the size of Helena set up in the Helena National Forest in the Elkhorns, which are full of dead and dying trees from the mountain pine beetle epidemic. They’re also worried about having so many strangers in their midst.

“If one of their campfires gets out of control, the entire half of the mountain could burn,” Lindsay said Thursday. “If they have 5,000 people, where would they go? Plus, there are bears and mountain lions; we lose pets in town all the time.

“We haven’t heard anything yet, but every so often we have been seeing a lot of cars go up there. It’s kind of frustrating.”

According to the Montana Gathering 2013 website, the council decides within one to seven days of convening, and “normally ends with either a consensus by silence among people at the council or an exodus of the majority of people heading to the preferred site.” Already, family members are traveling to or making arrangements to head toward Montana.

“The main day of the gathering is July 4 when we observe silence from dawn until high noon and put our energy into manifesting world peace, the positive evolution of the planet and other good things,” notes the Montana Gathering 2013 website.

“As to when the gathering starts, that's dynamic. It's usually one day during the last week of June when some friends and I look at each other and say ‘today it's a gathering.’ ”

At high noon on July 4, the meditative silence ends with a collective “Ohm,” followed by whooping and a celebration.

Smaller Rainbow gatherings take place in almost every part of the world, and they also have worldwide gatherings.

Cairns said regardless of where the group gathers on public land — which has been deemed a constitutional right — they need to work with the national forest to put together an operating plan that will explain how they’re mitigate potential damage to natural resources. They also have to explain how they’ll handle other issues, like fires, kitchens and bathroom facilities (they usually dig latrine trenches), and how they’ll do rehabilitation work.

“Afterward, they usually have a good number of volunteers that remain behind and do the rehabilitation work,” Cairns said. “The Forest Service is there to oversee the work. Our main thing is to make sure we protect the natural resources … and for the most part they are more than willing to do that.”

The Forest Service law enforcement also works with local and state officers to patrol the area to ensure public safety.

“We have a presence there throughout the event and mingle with them,” Cairns said. “As with any large group, there’s the potential for illegal activities, and you have both the good and the bad.

“But I have seen some pretty positive articles come out from past gatherings.”

If conditions are dry, Cairns said they can prohibit or limit fires as the Forest Service typically does when the potential for a wildfire is high.

In her experience, the gatherings are weather-dependent, so wet weather could drop the number of attendees.

Wherever the Rainbows decide to gather, Cairns said the Forest Service will put out press releases regularly and use social media like Twitter and Facebook to keep local communities aware of camp activities.

Broadwater County Sheriff Brenda Ludwig said they’ve been in contact with the scouting party, which at one point had about 40 people, and were told the Rainbow Family hopes to have at least 15,000 people at the Montana gathering.

So far, her deputies haven’t had any problems with the campers; they’ve been patrolling the area, which is about 20 miles from her office in Townsend. She said they told her that the Crow Creek site might not work for them.

“The last I heard from them – and I don’t know if they’re being honest or not because they don’t reveal where they are going to have it until they’re close to the date — that they’re not going to have it here. But we’re taking that with a grain of salt,” Ludwig said. “We’ve been working with law enforcement with the Forest Service and BLM (Bureau of Land Management), getting our plans in shape, just in case.”