Mushroom poachers put Crater park staff on alert
October 28, 1998
By BETH QUINN
CRATER LAKE NATIONAL PARK -- The 1998 matsutake season in the
high Cascades may be a bust, but back-country rangers are still
finding the cached baskets and plastic pails of mushroom
poachers inside Oregon's only national park.
"There's plenty of places they can pick mushrooms. They don't
have to come in the park," says Ranger John Broward. "If you
don't respect preserving the animals, preserving the natural
resources, at least respect people's right to have one natural
Every fall Broward dons camouflage to patrol the park's 183,000
acres, where illegal harvesters seeking pine mushrooms that can
fetch up to $900 a pound in Japan compete with resident
populations of elk, deer and bear for the autumn fruit.
Broward terms some poachers "Mom and Poppers" who simply park
their truck on the side of the road and wander through the
forest searching for mushrooms.
Of more concern are the organized poachers who establish a
"spike camp" deep in the park and systematically harvest the
woods, often using short-handled rakes that do the most
Since commercial mushroom harvesting began on the adjacent
Winema National Forest in 1989, park officials have seen no
decrease in animal populations.
But mushrooms fruit from the forest floor's mycelium, which is a
web of threadlike fungi that scientists believe form a microbial
sponge that absorbs soluble nutrients to feed the trees
Recent studies show that deep-raking for matsutakes breaks the
mycelium mat, reducing subsequent mushroom production. But no
one knows what long-term effect mycelium destruction may have
for forest health.
"It concerns me that there's so much mushroom picking going on
when we don't know what the effects are," says Chief Ranger
Buckingham listed mushroom poaching as the most serious threat
to the park in a 1996 General Accounting Office study of the
state of the nation's national parks. And each year since
harvesting began, rangers have stepped up their efforts to
police illegal mushrooming.
In addition to standard uniform patrols, rangers in camouflage
clothing secret themselves in areas known to be prime mushroom
habitat and sometimes establish their own back-country camps for
Even in a year when mushrooms are scarce, rangers have cited
four poachers within the park and released two others for lack
of evidence. The misdemeanor carries a $500 fine in the national
park and a $250 fine in the national forest.
"That's the price of doing business for a lot of them" Broward
says. "If they get a $500 fine, they probably made $5,000 that
Mushroom poachers don't just operate within Crater Lake National
Park. Last year law officers of the Winema and Deschutes forests
issued 250 citations, including 20 in one day in the Mount
Thielsen Wilderness. Poachers have also been caught inside
Oregon Caves National Monument in the Illinois Valley, where the
matsutake harvest begins next week.
With mushrooms hard to find this year, some fear the
environmental consequences will be high. Legal mushroom hunters
carefully pry the matsutakes from the forest floor and re-cover
the hole, but poachers often turn to rakes, hoping to cover the
maximum amount of ground with the least effort.
Winema forest mushroom manager Jerry Smith says this year he
heard fears for the environmental consequences of poaching
expressed by a person he described as "knowledgeable" about the
"The statement was made that there's no concern. This is an
economic venture with a short-term philosophy," he says. "I
think it's a lack of respect for the land."
In the national parks, the people's right outweighs any economic
argument, he says.
"There's a time and a place for everything. You can mine and
hunt and log on national forest lands," says Broward. "This (the
park) is for people to enjoy the natural setting."
Scarce matsutakes cut picker
The mushroom pickers are packing up as a
disappointing matsutake season in Central Oregon
draws to a close on Saturday.
Permit sales are down 66 percent from last year, and
forest officials estimate an average day's take of
matsutakes is only 10 percent of last year's
"At this stage we really don't have a good feel for
why it has not been a good producer," said Jerry
Smith, mushroom manager for the Winema National
Forest. "Mother Nature just decided this was not the
Last year, an average day saw 1,600 pickers in the
woods along the Cascade crest, each culling about 20
pounds of pine mushrooms worth an average $10 to $13
With this year's season a bust in comparison, Smith
estimates no more than 400 pickers are still in the
woods, each finding a meager 2 pounds of mushrooms a
day that are selling for an average $4.26 a pound.
The Forest Service's take is down as well. Last year
3,733 pickers paid $365,939 for permits to pick in
the Winema and Deschutes forests. By last Friday
only 1,216 permits had been sold for $136,618.
Early on, forest officials blamed the season's slow
start on a warm, dry autumn, but in recent weeks
cooperative weather hasn't improved the matsutake
"We've had every range of weather pattern that you
can imagine," Smith said. "At least some of them
should have stimulated production, and this year
we've had no response."
Despite the scarcity, prices have remained low for
the mushrooms, which are considered a delicacy in
Japan and have sold for $900 a pound. Officials
blame the Asian economic crisis for the market
The packed-up pickers may not be moving far. The
matsutake season in the Illinois Valley is just
getting under way.
Bureau of Land Management mushroom manager Kathy
Browning says resident prognosticator Andy Moore, a
longtime private harvester, predicts the Siskiyous
will see a better season than the one now closing in