The freedom to defecate on public land is conspicuously absent from the Bill of Rights.

Although this omission is perhaps to be expected, considering the state of sanitary engineering when the Founding Fathers were drafting their world-changing treatises.

The human eliminatory functions were still largely an outdoor endeavor in the 18th century, after all — outside the home, at any rate. Probably James Madison thought it unnecessary to mix in more, well, organic matters with such august rights as speech and religion and not having to share your privy with a platoon of Marines.

I bring up this rather distasteful topic because there is an unusual amount — which is to say volume — of these particular bodily necessities happening right now over in Grant County.

The Rainbow Family of Living Light — which if it did not put out an 8-minute single in the summer of 1967, featuring two organ solos, certainly should have — chose for its annual gathering a meadow on the Malheur National Forest northwest of Seneca.

The U.S. Forest Service, which manages Flagtail Meadow and the surrounding forest, estimates that 10,000 to 20,000 people will congregate there by Independence Day.

This event, among many other interesting things, has prompted more references to “latrines” than I’m accustomed to reading except in historical accounts of World War I.

The Rainbow Family, which has gathered every summer since 1972, usually in a similarly remote place on public land, boasts about its lack of leaders.

“We have lots of individual leadership but no leaders,” Garrick Beck, a Santa Fe, New Mexico, man who has attended all but two Rainbow Family gatherings, told The (Bend) Bulletin.

I appreciate the egalitarian approach.

But I’m still curious as to why the decentralized nature of the Rainbow Family doesn’t allow for the procurement of portable toilets, which seems to me a relatively simple task, lack of leaders or not.

The Rainbow Family’s presence has prompted a series of press releases from the Malheur National Forest replete with capital-lettered terms that the Forest Service generally reserves for major disasters such as wildfires.

Malheur officials have set up an “Incident Management Team” which is based, naturally, at an “Incident Command Post.”

It is not immediately clear, what with the dense verbiage and government jargon that lard these press releases, whether the Forest Service intends to merely monitor the Rainbow Family, or to bombard them with fire retardant or at least festoon members with the colorful ribbon the agency seems so fond of tying to tree.

Most of these press releases also mention latrines.

For instance: “U.S. Forest Service resource specialists are working to ensure resource protection issues by making sure that various kitchens, peace circles and latrines are located appropriately.”

I find this an interesting trio of things to worry about.

I’m not certain what a peace circle is, but I doubt I would mind stepping in one.

A latrine is a different matter.

The Rainbow Family, which resembles nothing so much as a smaller and probably less muddy version of Woodstock (without The Who and Jimi Hendrix) or a Grateful Dead concert tour (without Jerry Garcia), also creates what for me is a fascinating juxtaposition. There is the counterculture, with its peace circles, and the Forest Service, a federal agency with its stilting language and amusing euphemisms.

In the same press release that deals with latrine locations, the Forest Service included this oblique reference to the Rainbow Family: “Such a large group of people typically display a wide range of needs and behaviors that can stress the services and resources of a small, rural community.”

I don’t claim to have the Rosetta stone in this case. But I’m pretty sure the Forest Service is trying to warn Grant County residents about people driving VW buses, peddling vintage vinyl copies of “Surrealistic Pillow,” handing out tabs of acid and potentially placing flowers in the hair of teenagers.

I don’t begrudge members of the Rainbow Family exercising their constitutional right to peaceably assemble.

(They have peace circles, after all, which sounds pretty peaceful to me.)

Indeed I find it rather refreshing when a group — any group — publicly tweaks the federal bureaucracy’s nose. Which the Rainbow Family most certainly does, and has been doing for decades.

As the Malheur National Forest emphasizes in its press releases, the Rainbow Family gathering is both “unauthorized” and “unsanctioned.” The agency, curiously, doesn’t explain the difference between those adjectives, perhaps implying that the Rainbow Family is twice as guilty as a group which is either unauthorized or unsanctioned, but is not both.

Although national forest rules require groups of visitors with more than 75 members to sign a special use permit, the Rainbow Family refuses to do so, claiming that they have no leaders and thus no one in the official capacity to sign such a document.

I think it’s interesting that national forest officials aren’t as accommodating to much smaller groups when it comes to the comparatively trivial matter of how long they camp in one spot.

Typically campers, whether they number 1 or 1,000, can’t stay for more than 14 consecutive days in the same spot in any 30-day period.

But Rainbow Family members started arriving on the Malheur around June 19, and based on the media reports I’ve read, it’s likely that many will still be there after 14 days.

It seems to me that a couple who set up their pop-up camper out in the forest, and runs afoul of a forest ranger who tells them to move out after a fortnight, ought to mimic the Rainbow Family and simply cite the First Amendment.

I would hope the Forest Service wouldn’t make a fuss in such a case. Surely there’s no need to assemble an Incident Management Team to deal with two people.

Nor any reason to figure out where to dig latrines.

Jayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.

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