The Guerrilla Gatherers

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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