LIBBY, Mont. — The migrant pickers are still arriving--it's nearly the peak of the morel mushroom harvest on Little Wolf burn, site of the largest forest fire in northwest Montana last year.
In the Pacific Northwest and northern Rocky Mountains, edible wild mushrooms are a $44-million-a-year business. Morels, the most widely harvested edible wild mushrooms in the region, often appear after a fire. About 1.3 million pounds are harvested annually.
Mushroom harvesting is important to a lot of rural communities in the Northwest, said Keith Blatner, an associate professor at Washington State University who has researched the economic impact of special forest products.
"The migrant pickers are largely Cambodians, Laotians and Vietnamese. Some are well educated, but their degrees don't transfer to the United States. They're doing what they can to help their kids get ahead."
If the weather cooperates--intermittent rains, warm nights--the harvest this summer on the 15,320-acre Little Wolf burn will be bountiful. By the time it's over, up to 3,000 pickers may arrive from dwindling harvests in Washington and Oregon.
That's what some people in Lincoln County are afraid of.
A lawsuit filed last month by a county resident sought to halt the harvest in the Kootenai National Forest, claiming social and environmental impacts of commercial picking were not evaluated.
Ruling against the injunction, federal District Judge Charles Lovell said that residents' "racial fears are insubstantial. The forest belongs to all, is managed by the defendants for all and cannot be set aside as a private haven for local residents."
"There's people who don't want the commercial pickers," said Chris Smith, a young woman who is the local mushroom buyer for the Cascade Co. in Oregon. "But there's a lot of folks around here who need the money. I've probably put $30,000 into the economy in just the last few weeks."
Lincoln County's per capita income is $13,674, nearly the lowest in Montana. Double-digit unemployment has persisted for two decades. This county of 18,000 people lost over 1,000 mining and logging jobs in the past three years.
But the harvest of mushrooms is not a "silver bullet," Blatner said. Most jobs in the special forest products industry are part time, with no benefits. It can, however, provide a source of supplemental income and economic diversity. Blatner believes the morel harvest and timber production are compatible, with more prescribed fires and fewer clear-cuts.
A third of the Little Wolf burn was clear-cut within the last 15 years, yet the 1994 fire raced through, scorching the ground. The single most destructive forest practice, from the point of view of the wild mushroom industry, is clear-cutting. An initial "flush" of mushrooms may appear in clear-cuts, but sustained harvests occur where the forest canopy survives to provide shade.
Results of a 1994 nationwide survey on forest management indicate that the public believes timber harvesting reduces the risk of catastrophic fires and maintains forest health, and that to allow trees to decay is wasteful.
"It's timber industry hype," according to Larry Evans, a mycologist teaching at the University of Montana. Evans advocates setting frequent small fires to create a natural mosaic and establish borders. "Set them" Evans says, "and it'll reduce the likelihood of catastrophic burns."
In 1993, President Clinton directed the U.S. Forest Service to develop a plan for ecosystem management in the Pacific Northwest and Upper Columbia River Basin. A draft document of the environmental impact statement suggests that a major cause of forest deterioration is the change in fire's historic role during the past 90 years.
"Woody debris, such as decaying logs, has been reduced below minimums typically encountered naturally . . . with serious implications for moisture storage, nutrient cycling and habitat," the document reports. Downed trees act as sponges on the forest floor, holding moisture for periods of drought. In turn, fungi are critical links in the food chain, providing trees and plants with captured nutrients.
"Natural forests and streams are far more complex than we had imagined," the document states, citing recent studies. "At risk are not just trees or stands of trees, but the resiliency of ecosystems."
Fifty miles on Forest Service roads from downtown Libby, morels appear on the Little Wolf burn, and Smith awaits the arrival of two more 700-pound capacity dryers, forklifts, a conveyor belt, pallets, baskets, refrigerator trucks, more pickers, more buyers and her Cascade Co. bosses.
"This place," she says, pointing to a cavernous building nearby, "is going to be full."