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Mushroom Pickers Take On Forest Service, Loggers

Harvesters of prized matsutakes say timber sales in prime areas in Oregon will threaten their livelihood. The agency is trying to work out a compromise.

November 10, 2002|Gillian Flaccus | Associated Press Writer

CRESCENT JUNCTION, Ore. — It's just above freezing outside, but inside a long makeshift tent dubbed "The Noodle House," bowls of steaming soup and vegetable stir-fry add to the warmth seeping from a small wood stove.

On most nights, the dimly lighted tent serves as a cozy gathering place for the several hundred Thai, Cambodian and Laotian pickers who camp out in central Oregon each fall to hunt the elusive and valuable matsutake mushroom, a Japanese delicacy. On this night, however, the casual chatter has turned into a roiling debate about Forest Service plans to log the best matsutake habitat around.

Matsutake harvesters have for years stayed out of the debate on federal forest management and timber sales, preferring to quietly follow the mushroom crop south in a six-month migratory march from British Columbia to Southern California.

But that isolationist mentality changed abruptly last fall when pickers noticed trees tagged for logging on 2,400 acres of the Crescent Ranger District of Deschutes National Forest -- often considered the most fertile matsutake mushroom habitat in North America.

The resulting consternation transformed the tent at the pickers' main campground in the tiny outpost of Crescent Junction from a laid-back gathering place to an impromptu debate hall, where harvesters young and old meet at least once a week to discuss the fate of their prime mushroom patches. On a recent night, two dozen harvesters collected forest maps and Forest Service documents on the proposed timber sales after listening to Ranger Phil Cruz explain the need for the thinning projects.

"I'm interested in how the logging will affect the mushroom people. I heard that if the tree has been cut, the mushroom won't grow," said Nancy Souksavath, 18, who traveled from Denver with her family to pick matsutakes. "How will that affect the pickers in the future? Some people really depend on the mushrooms for a living."

Collecting the white, fist-sized mushrooms is more than an idle pastime for thousands of harvesters -- most of them low-income Southeast Asian families -- who travel from forest to forest each summer and fall. The majority who descend on the national forests depend on the mushroom harvest for most of their income.

In one extraordinary year that is still the stuff of legends, the best matsutakes sold for nearly $300 a pound. Most years, however, prices from Japanese buyers stay below $25 a pound for top-grade mushrooms, with spikes of as much as $35 a pound during better seasons.

About 10% to 20% of the matsutakes sold annually to Japan come from the North American market, buyers estimate, and during a good year, pickers say they can net $10,000 in two months of 12-hour days. Pickers buy Forest Service permits for as much as $200 that allow them to trek the forests with 25-pound buckets, searching for matsutakes.

Some keep as many as 150 prime patches on global positioning systems, said Rick Bond, a forester who runs the matsutake permit program in the Chemult Ranger District.

"Mushroom pickers have to have a lot of patience. It's a lot of walking and walking," said Hong Vor, a 44-year-old picker who spends 10 months a year running a restaurant in South Bend, Wash., and two months a year hunting matsutakes. "Sometimes you look for 30 days and there's nothing, and then there is one day that can make all the difference."

But pickers, who have long made a point of distancing themselves from the Forest Service, fear that without intervention, there will be no matsutakes in large swaths of prime picking areas.

The pickers and local environmentalists who are helping them say logging in the areas where mushrooms grow will mean the end of matsutakes, which depend on a symbiotic relationship with the roots of the firs and pines they grow under. Harvesters are concerned that logging equipment will tear up the mushrooms' fragile root system and allow in sunlight that will dry up the moist soil where the fungus grows best.

In an unprecedented move, harvesters met this spring with the Forest Service and signed a petition asking the agency to reconsider the timber sales, and include harvesters in current and future discussion about logging in matsutake habitat.

Cruz has since canceled part of one timber sale and placed others on hold while the two sides try to find a compromise. In addition, at the pickers' request, the Forest Service for the first time last fall extended the picking season in central Oregon by one week to make up for a bad season.

"Harvesters were just afraid to speak out. They didn't seem to feel safe about doing that before," said Katie Bagby, coordinator for Pacific West Community Forestry Center in Taylorsville, Calif. "There's certainly more speaking out now -- and sometimes all at once. It's very interesting."

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