STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, COLO. - A founding member of a hippie movement called the Rainbow Family suggested Saturday that it launch a federal lawsuit against a growing crackdown on their annual gatherings.

Barry Adams, known in the Rainbow Family as Barry Plunker, told a council circle at the first day of this year's weeklong gathering at Routt National Forest that federal pressure has gone too far.

Dozens of Forest Service officers, county deputies and Colorado State Patrol officers are manning checkpoints and patrolling camps as thousands of hippies flood the forest about 30 miles north of Steamboat Springs.

Under federal rules, any gathering of more than 74 people in a national forest requires a permit. Officials have said that in a fire, the narrow dirt access road would clog and campers would be trapped.

The clash between Rainbows and federal officers at national parks has become such a tradition that the Forest Service in 1998 established a national response team to deal with the group. Members defying federal orders typically are issued citations for camping illegally.

Rainbows say this year federal officers are issuing hundreds of citations and set up a makeshift federal courthouse nearby.

Rainbows say they have no leaders to request permits, and they shouldn't have to beg to express a constitutional right to freely assemble.

The Forest Service estimated that by Friday night about 6,000 hippies were camping in makeshift villages. That number swelled dramatically Saturday, the first official day of the gathering. An updated official estimate was not available.

Rainbows formed drum circles, exchanged beads, batik and crystals, and lined up at communal kitchens for meals. Everything is free and members greet each other by saying, "Welcome home."

Adams, 61, was drifting with a group of fellow hippies in the 1960s after his service in the Vietnam War when he decided to fulfill a vision of a giant gathering based on peace and love. Since the first Rainbow Family gathering in Colorado in 1972, he said, the federal government has denied permits and has done what it could to block the annual gathering.

Adams has spent months in jail for violating assorted bans and has fought his own cases.

On Saturday, he said it's time to realize the government already considers the Rainbow Family an organized group. Then Rainbows need to take advantage of that, hire attorneys and demand rights as a religious organization.

"I never thought there would be a problem with our federal government for us to go out in the woods and pray," Adams said. "We as a people have rights. We have a right to free speech."