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Mushroom poachers put Crater park staff on alert

 

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Mail Tribune
Medford, Oregon
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 place."


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 environmental damage.


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 overhead.


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 George Buckingham.


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 wilderness patrol.


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 day."


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 illegal harvest.


"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 numbers


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 pickings.


"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 year."


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 a pound.
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 harvest.


"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 downturn.


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 the Cascades.



 

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