Woods crawl with rumors and seekers of fortune in mushroom rush

June 28, 1993|By New York Times News Service

LA GRANDE, Ore. -- The high meadows of the Blue Mountains are full of wild strawberries this month, and the bear grass sprouts smell especially sweet. But these sublimities are mere background to a rush of people crawling along the forest floor in search of mushrooms, the latest and, pound for pound, perhaps most lucrative cash crop to come out of the national forests.

Using pocket knives as their only tools, the pickers are stuffing bags with morels, chanterelles, boletus and the gold nugget of wild mushrooms, matsutakes, which sell for up to $70 a pound in Asian retail markets.

Until a few years ago, only a handful of hobbyists were on the mushroom trail. But virtually overnight, an industry that the state of Oregon estimates is worth $40 million a year has sprouted in the Pacific Northwest. As many as 8,000 commercial mushroom pickers are in the woods this year, according to the National Forest Service, up from a few hundred in the late 1980s.

Many pickers are immigrants from Mexico or Southeast Asia who have given up harvesting fruit to follow fungi instead. Others are out-of-work loggers or young people from the cities. The season goes from spring until fall, with mushrooms appearing at the higher mountain elevations later in the summer. The pickers move from the Blue Mountains of Oregon to the Washington Cascades to the Olympic Range on the coast.

This year's surge has been compared to a gold rush, with the attendant problems of gun-slinging fortune-seekers, territorial fights and robberies. Two Asian-born mushroom pickers have been killed in the last year, both of them robbed of their cash and crop. The latest death happened a week ago, when Phay Eng, a 22-year-old Cambodian immigrant, was shot and robbed about 30 miles from this small town in Eastern Oregon. Friends said he had been carrying several hundred dollars.

As in gold rushes, rumor and greed fed by wild exaggeration have helped to swell the ranks of people foraging in the forests. Most pickers make $30 to $80 a day, but the occasional mother lode can bring a picker several hundred dollars for a few hours' work.

"In truth, I could do better working at McDonald's," said Greg Dixson, a veteran picker. He said he made $12 the day before but a while earlier had some $100 days. "I make a living and I'm my own boss," he added.

Mr. Dixson longs for the days when he seldom spotted another picker.

"Used to be, I'd come across another guy and we'd smoke a cigarette and go our separate ways," he said. "Now, you have to stake out your territory and hold it."

The Forest Service, an agency that makes most of its money selling timber, has been somewhat taken by surprise by the mushroom mania. It is studying whether to regulate and charge more for permits to pick.

The agency is also looking at whether the intensive harvesting will upset the ecological balance of the forests.

Pickers are required to pay the Forest Service only $1 a day for all they can pick. People who buy mushrooms from the pickers are charged $500 for a season for a permit to do business in a national forest.

This year, buyers have set up shop on mountain roads throughout Oregon and Washington.

One buyer, Floyd Reese, said he paid $4 million last year to pickers. He said he was running well ahead of that pace this year. He pays $8 a pound for boletus and about the same for morels, the two main types of mushrooms being picked in the Blue Mountains. Most of the mushrooms are flown to markets in Asia and Europe and to fancy American restaurants.

Because these mushrooms are not from farms, Mr. Reese says '' he can get a premium price for them. In Pike Place Market in Seattle this week, morels were selling for $18 a pound.

"What I'd like to see is for us mushroom buyers to be able to go into the forest and have a given contract on a harvest, same as timber cutters," Mr. Reese said, referring to the bidding process in which timber companies win exclusive access to cut a given tract of trees. "We're not a Weyerhaeuser, but we should be given the same consideration on the forests as timber companies. These 'shrooms are valuable. We put a lot of money into the communities."

No one in the Forest Service is seriously talking about replacing the $500 million logging industry with mushroom picking as a source of income for the agency and the communities that depend on its land. For one thing, mushrooms are unpredictable. Good years follow bad years, depending on the weather and ground conditions.

Most of the types of mushrooms being picked have a deep, well-developed underground base, a sort of root system. When mushrooms caps sprout, it is on the top of this larger, underground fungus. The mushroom itself is a sort of fruit. No amount of picking, therefore, is thought to cause any damage as long as the underground portion of the fungus remains untouched.

But some mycologists, or specialists in fungi, worry that extensive trampling, and picking methods that use rakes, may hurt the mushrooms.

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