The Guerrilla Gatherers

Forest harvesters called wildcrafters are creating a robust industry by picking mushrooms and other woodland fare -- but at what cost?

| May / June 2004

The man I will call Wheeler slides into the clearing from the blue forest of ponderosa pine, then skirts the meadow toward base camp, favoring shadows at the margins. He's headed for the half-dozen dusty pickup trucks that congregate where the wheel ruts end. There he weighs the day's harvest -- morel mushrooms, crimped and brittle -- then empties his bag into plastic bins that crowd the pickup beds. His next stop is the cooler, where he plunges his arm to the elbow in ice. Beer in hand, he lowers himself to the log across the snapping fire from where I sit and complains about how much time he has wasted fleeing federal agents on horseback and in helicopters.

I have often heard tales of clandestine mushroom harvests, but as I listen to Wheeler thump his chest between swigs, my muscles tighten. The agents at his heels, employed by the U.S. Forest Service, were protecting the North Fork John Day Wilderness Area in southwestern Oregon.

Often my friends are drawn to wildcrafting -- this clandestine harvesting of the forest's bounty -- by their passion for wilderness. Not only do they love spending their days out in the woods, but they are eager to create a forest industry that provides a sustainable, prosperous alternative to clear-cut logging. Throughout the Pacific Northwest, people make a living harvesting medicinal herbs, mistletoe, salal, Christmas greens, and even moss and lichens. Working in the woods no longer has to mean destroying great swaths of habitat with chain saws and replacing diverse ecosystems with Douglas fir plantations.

It may be hard to imagine that gathering moss has become a viable financial enterprise, but what the Forest Service calls 'nontimber forest products' already contribute $200 million a year to the economies of Oregon and Washington. As is so often the case, this wildcrafting industry has grown more quickly than a corresponding code of ethics. The competition for limited forest resources has sparked to a backcountry crime wave, from common theft to the occasional murder.

Beyond conflicts between harvesters are a number of less obvious issues, most of them environmental. To many pickers, mushrooms are the ultimate renewable resource. Picking them seems no harder on an ecosystem than gathering wild berries. But according to an influential USDA study, those mushrooms are at work spreading spores to reproduce underground fungi networks that ensure the health of Northwest forests. Beneath the forest floor, fungi pierce the roots of trees and receive carbon from them; in return, they help the trees absorb nutrients while protecting them from drought and disease. Mushrooms also feed small rodents, including the voles and flying squirrels that are favored by endangered species like the northern spotted owl. Naturalists are working to determine what impact new human traffic could have on forests.

The expanding market for herbal medicines has threatened a number of healing plants, including echinacea, osha, and especially goldenseal. Over 60 million goldenseal plants were harvested by wildcrafters in 1994 alone. I see great potential in this example of alternative forest labor -- mushroom pickers and herb harvesters are a big improvement over tree cutters -- and I have high hopes that this emerging industry will learn the lessons of restraint. But this evolution will not come easily, for in the logic of our national economy it makes no sense to voluntarily limit profits. Problems will intensify so long as industrial capitalism, with its appetite for perpetual growth, ignores its dependence on the economy of nature, which operates much closer to a subsistence level.

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