LA GRANDE, Ore. — A jump in demand for wild mushrooms, brought on in part by lingering effects of the Chernobyl nuclear accident, has spurred a fungi gold rush in Oregon complete with Western-style shootouts and slayings.
Thousands of people have descended on the Blue Mountains near LaGrande in search of morels and matsutakes--mushroom delicacies that bring from $14 to $20 per pound in Europe and Asia and can earn a picker up to $150 a day.
Local authorities say the increased number of pickers has led to violence, sometimes resulting in murder, as the fungi hunters feud over the best picking areas.
One recent victim was Phay Eng, a 22-year-old Cambodian from Raymond, Wash., found dead June 17 along a mountain road 30 miles north of Elgin in the Umatilla National Forest.
Union County Sheriff Steve Oliver said someone robbed Eng of his daily harvest of mushrooms and killed him when he stopped to change a tire on his car.
The sheriff declined to say how Eng died, but said his body was dragged from the road and hidden.
"We are withholding some information because it may help lead us to the killer," the sheriff said.
Oliver said Eng was part of a group of Cambodians with commercial picking permits who came to Oregon to take advantage of a large crop of mushrooms this year.
He worked for the same group of pickers as Thorng Mao, a Cambodian from Raymond, who was shot to death while gathering mushrooms last October in southern Oregon's Klamath County, a murder that remains unsolved.
Oliver said there had been three other recent incidents in which one group of pickers fired shotguns and other weapons over the heads of other pickers to scare them away from prime mushroom patches.
Authorities in neighboring counties also report shooting incidents, including one in which a bullet went through the door of a vehicle, narrowly missing a recreational mushroom picker who apparently wandered into an area where some commercial pickers were working.
"Some of the pickers are very protective of their areas," Oliver said. "And they have been using some fear tactics."
As a result, many pickers carry guns.
Police have seen everything from .22-caliber pistols to assault rifles, Morrow County Undersheriff Verlin Denton said.
Judy West, spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service, said prices are high this year because of demand in Eastern Europe, where the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident contaminated traditional mushroom-gathering areas.
She said most of the mushrooms gathered in Oregon are shipped to Eastern European countries.
"Those people like their mushrooms," she said. "Nearly 80% of what is harvested here goes there."
As a result, more than 1,000 out-of-state pickers applied for permits and set up camp in the LaGrande area this year, joining hundreds of local pickers.
West said many of the pickers migrate with the mushroom crop, starting in California in the early spring, moving Oregon and then on to Idaho and Canada later in the summer. They camp in groups of 20 to 30 and, in one case, up to 120.
"A lot of people don't realize that this is big business," West said. "It is a $5-million industry in Union County alone."
Some estimates have placed the value of the wild mushroom harvest in the Western United States at $50 million.
West said a large number of the migrating pickers are Asians; that has led to some friction and resentment by local residents, especially those who fought in the Vietnam War.
"Some people haven't worked through their feelings about the war yet," she said. "A lot of local people are uncomfortable."
But West said she thought the violence was more due to the larger number of pickers and greater competition for the traditional patches than a result of racial tension.
West said the commercial pickers pay $1 per day to the Forest Service for a permit. Pickers sell their mushrooms for $3 to $4 per pound and can make up to $150 per day, sometimes more if they stumble onto a particularly good patch.
"Most pickers figure it's a good day if they earn $50, and that's pretty steady money," she said. "And every once in a while they strike it rich."