LOOKOUT, W.Va. — Deep in the forest, miles from anything resembling a town, even logging roads and rutted four-wheeler paths dissolve. That's when J.P. Anderson gears down his battered Suzuki Samurai, crashing up the side of a mountain with bone-rattling force.
"Hang on," he says, scanning the trees for gaps and snapping the smaller ones in his way. Eventually, the engine goes silent and the vehicle comes to rest against a trunk 6 inches thick.
Anderson hops out and hikes downhill. Then he spots it: a long-fallen, rotting tree covered in a blanket of brilliant green moss about 2 inches thick and several feet long.
Quickly and gently, he rips up a long section of the living carpet and stuffs it into one of eight woven-plastic sacks that he fills in an hour.
"They told me money don't grow on trees. They was lying to me," he says, grinning through his black beard. "I know better now. It grows on rocks too."
Moss is the all-purpose sponge of the forest, storing water, releasing nutrients and housing tiny critters. But across Appalachia and in the Pacific Northwest, it's more than that. It's a way to make ends meet.
Picking moss is hard work on a hot day. Sweaty. Dirty. And it pays only about $5 a sack. But for Anderson, 33, who lives simply as a single father of twin boys, the solitude and independence beat the construction jobs that often pay the bills.
"I don't like dealing with people, actually. I don't deal well with being told what to do," he says, hefting another 20- to 30-pound sack over his shoulder. "I guess it's a superiority complex."
What Anderson has picked could end up in a floral arrangement or a craft project, maybe even on a movie set. Along the way, it will support more than a dozen jobs, from people who sort it, dry it and package it to those who ship and sell it.
But biologists, businessmen and pickers say the good stuff is getting harder to find -- and the money harder to make.
Moss is not commercially grown, so buyers depend on the wilderness. Some state and national forests have already banned harvesting, worried about what they are losing when moss is taken from the ecosystem.
A less ethical picker will strip the logs bare, but Anderson and his father, James, who have witnessed the devastation of strip-mining and clear-cut logging, always leave clumps behind to help the spore-driven plant regenerate. To thrive, it needs moisture, cool temperatures and shade.
"You never pick it all," James Anderson says. "Not if you want it to grow back again."
How long it takes to grow back is a question that has some scientists and U.S. Forest Service officials wrestling with the regulation of this little-known industry, where opinions outnumber facts.
North Carolina's Pisgah and Nantahala national forests expect to ban moss collection by Jan. 1 after studies there indicated a grow-back cycle of about 15 to 20 years, says Gary Kauffman, botanical specialist with the Forest Service.
That's twice as long as some veteran pickers and moss buyers think it takes.
Though Kauffman acknowledges that the science is lacking, Pisgah and Nantahala will err on the side of caution. That means the forests will be off-limits to the 100 to 200 pickers who typically get permits each year.
Nationwide, it's hard to tell how many people make a living from moss. Most search out private land, where they go unnoticed and untracked by hunt clubs and logging companies.
Some are chronically unemployed, living on society's fringe. Some do it as a recreation, filling sacks while hunting or hiking. Some teenagers do it for pocket money.
Few pickers are eager to talk about their work. Sometimes that's because it involves trespassing and illegal picking, but mainly it's to protect their sites from competitors.
Sue Studlar, a West Virginia University biologist who has studied the business, argues that moss is "mined, rather than sustainably harvested." Large-scale removal can inadvertently damage other species, ranging from ferns to salamanders.
The Monongahela National Forest banned moss-gathering in 2001 until it could study the effects. Two years later, Studlar concluded that picking should be discouraged near limestone cliffs and wet areas, that no log or rock should be stripped bare, and that known "biodiversity hot spots" should be off-limits.
But "potentially, if you did it right," moss could be harvested without harming the ecosystem, Studlar says. It falls off in clumps naturally as it regenerates; pickers could harvest the remnants.
The Monongahela, which covers nearly 1 million acres in West Virginia, may someday restore moss-picking permits. Ecologist Melissa Thomas-Van Gundy says that possibility is not a priority, but she agrees with moss-pickers who say they and others should be allowed to take non-timber products from the forest, including ginseng root and medicinal herbs like goldenseal, before loggers destroy them.
"We allow other uses, so the question is how to fit this in," she says.