Forest service cracks down

Officers and Rainbow defendants square off at federal hearings

— Routt County resident Tina Harding had not been pulled over in six years. That is until Thursday afternoon, when she and her 3-year-old daughter were stopped by U.S. Forest Service officers while delivering food donations to Rainbow Family of Living Light gatherers.

Despite notifications posted on some of the vehicles parked at the Rainbow gathering area, Harding was surprised to be issued a federal citation for illegal occupancy and use without a special-use permit.

"I'm not affiliated with them in any way," Harding said Friday. "I heard they were begging, so I decided to bring them some food."

Harding was not alone in her surprise.

About 230 other people cited during the past week for gathering on national forest land without a special-use permit were summoned to appear at 9 a.m. Friday morning before Federal Magistrate Judge David West. In an improvised courtroom set up in the garage bay of North Routt Fire Protection District Station No. 2, those who had been cited by Forest Service officers were called in to the courtroom in groups according to the officer who ticketed them.

"I only had 10 in my group," said Jason Parker, the Forest Service's Incident Management Team day shift supervisor. "I had two no-shows, one plead guilty to possession and paid a fine, and seven plead not guilty. Once someone pleads not guilty, they all follow suit."

As one of the first gatherers to be cited during Monday evening's sweeps, Gregory "GG" Mereida was among the first to plead not guilty Friday. Officers and defendants were questioned on the witness stand by Assistant U.S. Attorney Wyatt Angelo, and the proceedings dragged on as defendants questioned officers and pleaded their cases.

Mereida was found guilty of the petty offense of illegal occupancy and was issued a $135 ticket, including fees. He was allowed to return to the Rainbow gathering site, about 35 miles north of Steamboat Springs in the Big Red Park area of the Routt National Forest.

By noon, only 20 of the 232 cases on the docket had been tried. Parker said most of the citations were for illegal occupancy of forest land and use without a special-use permit.

Forest Service spokeswoman Diann Ritschard said the purpose of the hearings was to accommodate the summoned individuals with an immediate trial to help them avoid becoming subject to federal arrest warrants.

As the sun beat down on the hundreds gathered along Routt County Road 129 between Hahn's Peak and Columbine, the atmosphere became tense.

"They forced us under the threat of arrest to show up at 9 (a.m.)," Rainbow Family "nonmember" Gary Stubbs said. "There's no water, they won't let us fill up our water jugs, we've got a guy in a wheelchair and we can't use their handicap-accessible bathroom, and there's no shade. At the gathering site, we can at least provide those basic needs. This is comparable to Nazi Germany in 1938."

Volunteers from the North--west Colorado Visiting Nurse Association distributed bottled water and containers filled at the nearby Steamboat Lake State Park facilities.

Most group members patient--ly awaited their cases and searched for spots in the shade. A few shouted at officers standing guard nearby to secure the courtroom.

"We always go through this process," said the Rev. Rudy "the Raven" Acosta, a member of the original scouting council and veteran minister of Rainbow Family gatherings since 1997. "Eventually, we'll get permitted, and these tickets will be voided. We need more dialogue and cooperation with the Forest Service in terms of their suggestions of locations for us to scout and apply for to have our gatherings."

Although Acosta's optimism about the situation being resolved didn't appear to mesh with Forest Service officials' adamant denial Thursday of the group's special-use permit application, his call for cooperation could be the solution to the citation stalemate.

But Forest Service Incident Management Team spokeswoman Denise Ottaviano said that as long as the Rainbow gatherers insist on using an area where "forest conditions are ripe for large fires," officers will continue giving citations and holding hearings.

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