GIFFORD PINCHOT NATIONAL FOREST, Wash. (AP) — Lights flash in the dusk as police cars surround a blue school bus painted with colorful hearts and flowers. Several youthful hippies watch while officers search their bags and a police dog sniffs for drugs.
They were pulled over for failing to use a turn signal on a remote forest road. Minutes later, two pose for mug shots after the search turns up marijuana.
It's a scene likely to be played out again in the next week as thousands descend on the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in southwest Washington for the 40th annual gathering of the Rainbow Family of Living Light, a group of peace activists borne out of the '60s counterculture movement.
Brought in to keep their own peace: 30 U.S. Forest service law enforcement personnel from around the country, working 24-7 on three rotating shifts.
The Forest Service says the sheer number of people warrants the heavy police presence. Critics call it overkill in a remote forest that could be easily policed — or at least managed — by local law enforcement.
"There's no accountability," said Paul Pearce, local Skamania County commissioner.
Said Gary Stubbs, a decades-long Rainbow gatherer from Marysville, Calif., "They treat us like terrorists."
As many as 20,000 people have turned out for annual gatherings of the Rainbow Family, which has no formal structure or leaders. An informal council decides each year where the gathering will be held. For years, the decisions have sparked court battles with the Forest Service over the group's right to gather without a permit.
Those battles culminated in 2008, when Forest Service officers fired pepper balls at gatherers in the Bridger-Teton National Forest in western Wyoming.
This year, for the first time, the Rainbow Family advertised public meetings with local residents to ease concerns about increased traffic, drug use and crime. Local law enforcement and fire officials, state lands officials and local shopkeepers attended.
At the first meeting, in Stevenson, Wash., no one from the Forest Service showed.
The absence highlights fears that the federal government doesn't share the concerns of local residents, Pearce said.
Pearce is a member of the National Association of Counties, which has sponsored a resolution urging Congress to restore law enforcement management to local forest supervisors. Currently, the Forest Service's law enforcement "incident management" teams report to Washington D.C. headquarters.
Surrounded by hippies with assorted piercings, tattoos and dreadlocks, Pearce seems an odd pairing with the Rainbow Family. A retired police officer of 30 years, he stands a burly 6-feet in shiny black cowboy boots. But a glance at his hip — where one anticipates a gun — reveals a cell phone.
"If you're law enforcement in my community, you have to take your kids to the same school as those people you arrest," Pearce said. "You're forced to police people with respect, and if you police people with respect, you will have fewer problems."
Corey Rhyne, 32, of Hickory, N.C., echoed that sentiment after getting pulled over in the blue school bus for failing to use a turn signal. He and a friend were scheduled court appearances after a subsequent search of their belongings turned up marijuana.
"It was ridiculous fascism," he said. "I just feel like my constitutional rights were violated."
Last year in the Santa Fe National Forest in New Mexico, authorities recorded more than 370 incidents due to the Rainbow Family gathering.
Christy Covington, a Forest Service spokeswoman brought in with the incident management team, said the agency manages Rainbow Family gatherings similar to how it manages natural disasters, such as hurricanes or wildfires. National law enforcement teams often are called in for those situations.
"It's an incident command system. It's a very organized, tried-and-true system that works," she said, adding that the local forest supervisor and local law enforcement have unified with the national team to manage the gathering.
As family members began assembling, depending on where they started, they were hiking in as many as four miles, carrying sleeping bags, tents, tarps and musical instruments to a meadow tucked in the woods not far from Mount St. Helens
In the woods, it wasn't all disagreements.
Nineteen-year-old Michael Kesinger of Elk Grove, Calif. bummed a cigarette from a Forest Service law enforcement officer — who confirmed his age first — after hitching rides to his first gathering.
"I just have heard people talk about this, and I wanted to see what it's all about," he said. "I like the idea behind it."
The idea behind the gatherings is peace, said Stubbs, who's hoping for just that in dealing with the Forest Service this time around.
"We come here for the principal reason of holding hands on the 4th of July and praying for world peace," he said. "If you look at the state of the world, it can't hurt."