Backcountry tangles 

Morel pickers spar with Forest Service over harsh tactics

The hills are alive with the sound of gunfire. And children crying, adults yelling and handcuffs snapping into place on outstretched wrists. Mushroom pickers currently combing the Bitterroot and Beaverhead-Deerlodge forests for the delectable and valuable morel are reporting stories of official harassment and intimidation in the woods. Government employees, most notably Forest Service law enforcement officers, are going overboard in their attempt to enforce the mushroom picking rules, they say. The result has been what one man calls racial profiling of Asian pickers, and undue force applied against people who are simply picking morels without the required permits.

Forest Service spokesmen say it’s a fungal jungle out there. Most pickers are armed, some pursue mushroom harvests with a decidedly anti-government chip on their shoulder, while others take potshots at the competition.

One picker who has felt intimidated by harsh Forest Service tactics is Hong Vorng, a Cambodian immigrant and restaurateur who lives in Washington state. Vorng and his family have been in the Bitterroot Valley picking and buying mushrooms for a month. Recently, he ran afoul of the Forest Service when he wandered onto the Beaverhead-Deerlodge Forest after having obtained his $100 seasonal mushroom harvesting permit from the adjacent Bitterroot National Forest. Vorng was approached by three Forest Service employees wanting to see his permit. It was a case of right permit, wrong forest, which Vorng remedied the next day by getting a permit from the Wisdom Ranger District of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge Forest. But it was the questions put to him in that first encounter that Vorng calls inappropriate and intimidating. One Forest Service employee asked Vorng where he got his pickup truck, why he was driving up and down the road, and why his son Michael was carrying a gun. “Sometimes there’s lots of animals, or I get lost,” and fire the gun as a signal, Vorng explained to the Forest Service employees.

Vorng got his mushroom permit from the right forest the next day. Several hours later when he was out picking mushrooms, five government vehicles bearing state game wardens, a Beaverhead County deputy and Forest Service law enforcement, stopped and questioned him again. “They brought five vehicles,” Vorng says. “That’s not right. I don’t think… whoever pays all these people, like it. I’m kind of scared because there’s five vehicles and nine people and it’s just me and my kid.”

Ultimately, Vorng received a $100 citation for picking mushrooms without the proper permit the day before and saw officers confiscate between 60 and 70 pounds of mushrooms. “It’s just kind of mean, you know?” says Vorng. “I’ve been picking mushrooms for many years and never had this problem.” Grady Kaiser also had a problem with the Forest Service. The Kooskia, Idaho man was picking mushrooms with his friend, Craig Daly, Daly’s children and another family friend about 20 miles up the East Fork of the Bitterroot River. They had no permits. After camping and picking for about a week they were about to pack up and leave when two Forest Service rigs and three employees “come busting into camp…Next thing I knew [a Forest Service employee] come rushing around and started screaming and yelling. He wanted me to get out of the trailer and turn around. He wanted me to submit like we committed a major crime.”

Kaiser says he was slow to respond. “They said, ‘Turn around, put your hands on your head and spread your legs.’” Kaiser says he didn’t respond. One officer “was totally out of control. He looked dangerous and he was dangerous.”

Daly walked into the scene in time to see an officer handcuff Kaiser and then hold a gun to his back. “That’s when I saw they had the gun on Grady,” says Daly.

The officers headed for a camp trailer where Daly’s children were waiting. “My one daughter opened the door and said, ‘Are you going to kill us?’ My little eight-year-old was crying and my 12-year-old was crying because they were arresting their friend (Kaiser).”

The sight of crying children stopped the officers, who gathered the kids together and apologized for scaring them.

“It wasn’t a good experience,” says Daly. “I thought, this is crazy, over a bunch of little mushrooms that were going to dry up and blow away.” The officers issued three $100 citations, one to each of the drivers, and confiscated their mushrooms.

But the story isn’t that simple, says Dale Brandeberry, law enforcement supervisor for the Bitterroot National Forest. It wasn’t Forest Service law enforcement that got out of control, he says. Rather, it was Kaiser who scared the officers. “(Kaiser) started screaming and hollering and yelling and acting wild,” he says. “They eventually put him in handcuffs for his protection and theirs.”

None of the officers on the scene were available for comment, but Brandeberry says he was briefed by them after the incident and has requested a written report. At no time did anyone draw a gun, he insists, though he believes his officers should have.

“I asked him [one of the officers] why he didn’t have his gun drawn. I said ‘You should have,’” says Brandeberry. “My opinion is they should have sought cover and drawn their guns. It was [Kaiser’s] behavior that alarmed them. They didn’t know if he was armed. The handcuffing I don’t think is extreme at all.”

Where commercial mushroom pickers see opportunity, Forest Service law enforcement sees potential trouble, and if the agency appears to be on edge, it’s for good reason. There are currently 133 felony arrest warrants issued for people believed to be out picking mushrooms commercially in the burned woods of the Pacific Northwest. This season Brandeberry has received seven or eight reports of people shooting guns in the forest, two in the North Fork of Rye Creek just south of Darby. One family out picking morels heard shots fired over their heads. Someone fired at a woman picking mushrooms, then ran away. Someone else took a potshot at another mushroom picker and yelled, “go back to California.”

“There’s so much country out there,” says Brandeberry. “We’ve had a lot of incidents where people are carrying guns and shooting. When people start shooting at each other it gets scary. We’re really not trying to harass anybody.”

Ron Lewis is skeptical. Lewis owns the property in Darby where Vorng has set up a buying station. He suggests the Forest Service is targeting Vorng because he’s Asian. When Vorng told Lewis the story of the citation, the questioning and the confiscation of his mushrooms, Lewis initially thought Vorng had been robbed of his harvest by people pretending to be Forest Service employees. When he made inquiries he was surprised to find that the people who took Vorng’s morels were indeed Forest Service agents. “I want to know why they’re asking questions like it’s an interrogation,” says Lewis. “If it was me out there, they wouldn’t ask me why I was carrying a gun. That’s racial profiling, isn’t it?”

Brandeberry disagrees, saying, “If we were going to racial profile anyone it would be white people. That’s where most of our problems come from.”

Jeff Trejo manages the mushroom harvest program for the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. He says that charges of racial profiling are nonsense, and if those charges are being leveled at the Forest Service it’s only because nationally, racial profiling is a hot button issue.

“I think, unfortunately, that some people are quick to jump on the bandwagon,” says Trejo. “Being Hispanic, I’m pretty sensitive to these issues and I know what it’s like to be treated differently.”

In Trejo’s neck of the woods, mushroom picking is taking place in lynx habitat. Lynx is a protected species under the Endangered Species Act. The Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency responsible for enforcing the Act, want mushroom harvesters to stay in certain areas to protect the habitat. This restriction has further strained the relationship between government agencies and harvesters. If there’s any bias in the woods these days, argues Trejo, it’s directed against Forest Service personnel by those few morel harvesters who harbor anti-government attitudes and refuse to play by the rules.

Kaiser, still angry with the Forest Service for the way he was treated, sounds as if he may harbor a bit of anti-government feeling himself. “If you’re looking for a headline,” he says, “you can use the words black-booted Gestapo.”

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