Morel dilemma 

Slim ’shroom pickings on the national forests

While the majority of outdoors enthusiasts and recreationists were grateful the fire gods spared most of the northern Rocky Mountains last year, that relatively smoke-free summer now has some local mushroom pickers all fired up.

The famed morel, a fungal delicacy that springs up abundantly in the summers following forest fires, is sought after by recreational harvesters and commercial pickers alike. But thanks in part to the dearth of major burns on public lands in 2005, the U.S. Forest Service has banned commercial mushroom picking on all Region 1 forests this year. Recreational pickers can still take up to 5 gallons of mushrooms per day and up to 50 pounds per season, but the sale of morels harvested on National Forest lands is prohibited. In addition, pickers must cut their mushrooms in half as soon as they are picked (the halved fungi are worthless on the commercial market).

The reason for the region-wide ban on commercial mushroom harvesting, according to Forest Service spokesman Steve Kratville, has to do with a lack of interest expressed by commercial pickers during post-fire management planning. Since the relatively small 1,400-acre Signal Rock fire southwest of Philipsburg was the area’s only major burn, Kratville says, large-scale commercial pickers showed little interest in the region.

“There is some significant work that has to be done to prepare for [a commercial harvest],” Kratville says. “If there was any indication that a lot of commercial pickers were interested we would have considered it. Up until now we haven’t seen significant demand for commercial picking on the Signal Rock fire.”

Therein lies the problem.

According to Kratville, the rise of small-scale local commercial pickers is a relatively new phenomenon that has mostly gone unnoticed by the Forest Service until recently. The agency has traditionally made decisions about whether to sanction commercial harvests and direct resources to management of those operations based on interest expressed by major commercial operators. Meanwhile small-scale local commercial interests have been overlooked.

Bitterroot valley resident John Walker is one such small-scale commercial picker affected by this year’s ban. Walker, a 36-year-old University of Montana forestry student, made about $500 harvesting and selling mushrooms in 2001 following the 2000 fires in the Ninemile valley. After no major fires in 2001 and 2004, and thus no commercial permits the following years, Walker was eagerly anticipating this year’s crop once he learned of 2005’s 1,400-acre burn in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. He says he was counting on being able to pick and sell mushrooms to supplement his income.

“As soon as we heard there was that fire burning we were cheering it on,” Walker says.

But that excitement was dampened by the Forest Service’s decision to restrict this season’s picking to personal use.

“These nontraditional forest products are gifts from God, and it’s really sad to let a crop of morel mushrooms rot in the sun when it could employ a lot of people in rural areas,” says Walker, who estimates at least $50,000 worth of the coral-like fungi are growing on the Signal Rock burn south of Skalkaho Pass.

The Forest Service’s decision is having an impact on some local businesses and consumers as well.

“I’m going to be careful to avoid purchasing mushrooms that might have been harvested illegally,” says Paul Rosen, produce manager for Missoula’s Good Food Store. “It’s possible to get mushrooms from Portland or Seattle, but prices are going to be triple what we pay to people who are able to pick them locally and deliver them with a minimum of hassle.”

Forest Service officials could not say as of press time how many pickers have been cited for illegal mushroom harvesting this year, but eyewitnesses have told the Independent of at least four such incidents.

Still, according Kratville, regional law enforcement supervisors have instructed their field agents to go easy on first-time offenders. He says agents will give pickers an opportunity to cut their morels in half, and if they comply they won’t be cited.

“If they exceed the amount allowed on the personal use permit or refuse to cut them in half they will then be issued a citation,” Kratville says. “I think law enforcement officials have tried to give everybody the opportunity to comply with the terms of the permit.”

Walker says he had his mushrooms confiscated June 16 at a checkpoint on Sand Basin Road after he lied to a Forest Service law enforcement officer about the amount of mushrooms he and his wife had just harvested. He admits he was going to try to sell the mushrooms, and now he wonders what will happen to the 25 pounds of morels the Forest Service took into custody that day.

According to Kratville, mushrooms confiscated for violations of personal use permits are held as evidence and then eventually destroyed. Mushrooms confiscated for violations of a commercial permit are sold, and the monies are held in an account until the case is resolved. If the government prevails in court, those monies are then sent to the U.S. Treasury. But since there are no commercial permits available this season, the Forest Service won’t be selling any mushrooms, says Kratville.

While commercial harvesting is allowed on private land, local commercial pickers hoping to harvest on National Forest burns are out of luck this season. But Kratville acknowledges that the Forest Service should consider the interests of small-scale pickers like the Walkers in the future.

“That may be something that we need to change and respond to. Based on our experience this year we may ask the questions differently [next time] we’re contemplating restoration work.”

jadams@missoulanews.com

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