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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Picking Apart the Forest

Air Date: Week of

Jennifer Schmidt of member station KPLU reports on the booming forest products industry in Washington State. Huckleberry gathering, mushroom hunting, and general forest foraging have evolved from a marginal source of income to a significant part of the local economy. Some are concerned that too many careless pickers will wreck the forest. Meanwhile, competition between pickers has already led to territorialism and occasional violence.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood.

The Pacific Northwest - home to big trees, big mountains, and big disputes over the use and value of our natural resources. Today we begin a periodic series of shows about the Pacific Northwest, and we start with the forests. We'll examine the fate of the ban on logging on Federal lands in light of President Clinton's forest plan, and how the forests themselves may change over the next generation . And we'll hear about the growing debate over the impact that logging and grazing on public land is having on salmon populations. But first, we head into some lush old-growth US forests near Seattle, where local folks are making a living despite the current logging bans - picking wild mushrooms, moss, huckleberries and even medicinal herbs from the forest floor. As Jennifer Schmidt of member station KPLU reports, it's becoming a lucrative business, but the picking isn't as easy as it once was.

SCHMIDT: Mason County, on Washington's Olympic Peninsula, contains some of the best mushroom-hunting grounds in the entire state. During the fall the county's rural roads are lined with makeshift buying stands. Each afternoon, pickers arrive and dump buckets full of mushrooms onto sturdy metal scales.

(Sound of mushrooms being weighed)

SCHMIDT: Until recently, mushroom picking in the Northwest was mainly a hobby. But speak to pickers these days, and most will tell you they go into the woods out of economic necessity.

PICKER 1: Too many people are unemployed, that's what the problem is. Too many people have got no jobs, can't make any money.

SCHMIDT: According to the US Forest Service, there are now about 8,000 commercial mushroom pickers in the Northwest, up from just a few hundred in the late 1980's.

(Sound of walking in forest; "Here's a mushroom right here . . .")

SCHMIDT: Just a few miles from the mushroom buying stands, off an old logging road, Lenny Morris walks through a stand of 80-year-old Douglas fir trees. At his feet, patches of golden Chanterelle mushrooms, with their elegant fluted caps, adorn the ground. But Morris pays no attention. He makes a living gathering and selling huckleberry, beargrass and other greenery for floral arrangements. As he pushes through the undergrowth, Morris reaches out and snaps off the stems from bushes of leafy green celown (sp?).

MORRIS: The old leaf has got to be stripped off, so that you only have this year's growth on it. It's a matter of holding it in your hand and stripping and clipping it at the same time. There we go, we've got a bunch of, bunch of floral greens.

SCHMIDT: Morris and his wife started harvesting greenery full-time in the early 1980's. A few years later the couple opened a small wholesale packing company. Morris now divides his time between harvesting in the woods and managing the company's ten full-time employees. His business is one of a growing number of wholesale companies in the Northwest that sell everything from native herbs to decorative wreaths made from woodland plants. The special forest-products industry is now estimated to generate about $175 million dollars in annual sales. Just a few years ago, it was considered a nearly-invisible cottage industry. The industry's explosive growth worries Lorelei Norville, a mushroom researcher and doctoral student in botany at the University of Washington. She says bad harvesting practices are beginning to take a toll on the forests.

NORVILLE: There are people who of course are motivated by the almighty dollar and will go out and rake, they'll rip back moss, they will totally disturb the habitat, because they're looking at it from a one-shot deal, and in so doing they may well completely wreck that spot.

SCHMIDT: Observers say damage to the woods could be reduced simply by teaching pickers better harvesting practices. But there's another potential problem that worries some even more. Scientists know very little about commercial harvesting and its effects on moss, mushrooms and other products. Ken Russell, Washington State's forest pathologist, says until scientists can determine sustainable harvesting levels, there's a chance these products will unknowingly be overharvested, which could jeopardize the long-term health of the entire forest. Mushrooms, he says, are a good example.

RUSSELL: Mushrooms are vital to the survival of trees. No tree worldwide can grow without fungi in their roots; it's a symbiotic relationship. It's like humans must have bacteria in their intestines to help digest food. So it's the damage that we could do to the ecosystem that we have a great concern about.

SCHMIDT: There are studies now underway, but most are long-term. In the meantime, private, state and Federal land managers are enacting new regulations to strictly control what comes out of the woods. In most areas, pickers must now purchase permits or lease land on which to harvest. Ken Russell calls the new rules inevitable and necessary.

RUSSELL: It's the price you pay for more people, and when there weren't so many people here it really didn't matter. But the day of the free lunch is over, even in the woods.

(Sound of people weighing in mushrooms)

SCHMIDT: After a day's harvesting, a group of mushroom pickers gathers at one of the roadside buying stands. Many here resent that the woods are no longer open to them, and continue to trespass onto land that's been leased or permitted to someone else. As a result, violent confrontations are on the rise.

PICKER 2: I carry a gun and nine times out of ten I have a big black Lab with me that does not like other people.

SCHMIDT: This mushroom hunter, who didn't want her name used, says even pickers who stray onto restricted land accidentally risk getting into trouble. She says that's what happened to her when she ran into two other pickers out in the woods.

PICKER 2: These two guys stood there and said, you come on our property, we're going to shoot you. Nobody knows where their land is. If somebody pulls a gun on me, I'm going to pull one back. I am not going to stand there and get shot.

SCHMIDT: Two commercial mushroom hunters were shot and killed in the woods this past year, and local sheriff's departments are reporting an increase in the number of incidents involving firearms in the woods. Despite the problems, both environmentalists and timber workers have expressed support for the special forest-products industry. Environmentalists say they like it because it allows people to make money from the woods without tearing them down. Timber groups say special forest-products will help diversify rural economies while still allowing displaced loggers to continue working in the forests.

(Sound of walking in forest; "whoop!)

SCHMIDT: Back in the woods, floral greens harvester Lenny Morris says he welcomes the attention the industry is receiving, and hopes it will lead to growth and more jobs for local residents. But Morris says it's not just economic incentives that bring him and others to the woods. As he heads back to his truck, Morris pats his dog Huckleberry and says as a workplace, the forest is hard to beat.

MORRIS: This is a real nice office out here. It's peaceful, it's quiet, and every day is different. It's just a real nice feeling to be out here. It just, there's nothing like it in the world.

SCHMIDT: For Living on Earth, I'm Jennifer Schmidt reporting.



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