Campout of wealthy and powerful at Bohemian Grove peaks this weekend
Whether it’s the influx of private jets at the Sonoma County Airport, out-of-towners in pricey cars or roadside ads for the upcoming Monte Rio Variety Show, the signs are clear: The annual encampment of rich and powerful men at Bohemian Grove is underway.
The exclusive, male-only summer gathering in the redwoods of Monte Rio has been a fixture for more than 130 years and yet each July breathes an air of mystery into the surrounding community - a humble town of modest means that, for 18 days a year, has 2,400 of the world’s elite ensconced in the woods nearby.
But beyond the novelty of participation by globally important political and corporate figures, many in the Russian River community simply view the seasonal campout as a fact of life that brings business and jobs into an ever-struggling economy and sponsors an annual community fundraiser, to boot.
“Really, the only change that I can see is you get a lot more people asking for directions from fancy cars,” said Anke Larsen-Yfkamp, 16, who serves some of the grove’s guests in her job at the Village Inn & Restaurant nearby.
The super-secret, San Francisco-based Bohemian Club hosts the retreat at its 2,700-acre grove down a narrow lane on the south side of the Russian River.
Its ranks are said to include captains of industry, military leaders, actors, musicians, wealthy investors, cabinet members and every Republican president since Calvin Coolidge. Secret Service personnel turn up, too.
Speakers this year reportedly include former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker Jr.; retired U.S. Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, onetime chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative; television writer and producer Norman Lear; former Defense Secretary and CIA Director Leon Panetta; Christopher Hill, former U.S. ambassador to Iraq; and AOL founder Steve Case.
But the public’s glimpse into club membership, as well as its activities, is mostly limited to what gets leaked or is unearthed by the curious and suspicious, some of whom view the Bohos with distrust - not least because so much wealth and influence is concentrated in one place, unfettered by democratic rules or transparency.
“There’s lots of reasons to call attention to it,” said longtime social justice advocate Mary Moore, 80, a Camp Meeker resident who organized protests at the Bohemian Grove gate over much of the past three decades.
Moore believes the Grove’s secrecy permits power players to formulate domestic, foreign and financial policy outside of public view, where it should be made.
“It’s not the only place in the world where rich guys get together,” Moore said, “but it is the one in our backyard.”
Yet Moore has stood down in recent years, withdrawing from the annual gate demonstrations because of what she says is the unwelcome intrusion of conspiracy theorists who embrace tales of Satan worship and human sacrifice - driven largely by a ritualistic and costumed “Cremation of Care” ceremony that opens the encampment each year, permitting participants to cast away their concerns while they party in the woods.
“They have a right to be out there, but they hijack the event,” Moore said of those who tout far-fetched stories of the occult, “and more important, they hijack the message.”
A handful of folks have continued to demonstrate outside the gates during this year’s encampment, which began July 9 and runs through the 26th.
But many in the community say their interactions with those from the grove suggest a bunch of well-heeled guys relishing a fun and relaxing vacation, surrounded by friends in a beautiful forest where they enjoy theater, eclectic musical performances and intriguing talks about issues of the day.
Most stories about the grove “are myth and legend,” said Monte Rio Fire Chief Steve Baxman, who is in and out of the grove on official business throughout the year, as well as during the encampment. He once spent a half-day ferrying Ronald Reagan around, before the onetime actor and California governor became the nation’s president.
“It’s no different than any other group of people that get together and have a good time,” Baxman said. “It’s great entertainment, great talks, great shows.”
The grove remains active throughout the 18-day encampment, bringing increased traffic to the region, though arrivals tend to be most noticeable around Thursday of each week and departures most obvious Sunday, as far as the county airport is concerned.
Assistant Airport Manager Steve Lange said as many as 50 private jets may accumulate on a given day. This weekend, the second of the encampment, is generally the busiest, he and others said.