BY ANN McCREARY
Wildfires that devastated area forests last fall are expected to result in a bountiful crop of morel mushrooms this spring – and an onslaught of commercial pickers who will come to harvest the delectable fungi. Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest officials are preparing for large numbers of commercial mushroom pickers who flock to recently burned areas throughout the Northwest to harvest morels that thrive after forest fires.
“You often get a huge flush of [mushroom] growth after a fire,” said Stuart Woolley, resources staff officer for the forest. The bountiful harvest in turn lures an influx of commercial pickers, Woolley said. “Burn it, and they will come.”
Depending on growing conditions, the mushroom crop is expected to begin emerging as early as next week, and the Forest Service is preparing to accommodate the out-of-area pickers by establishing designated campsites and distributing information about mushroom harvesting regulations.
In the Methow Valley, national forest system lands that were burned in the Leecher, Goat, Hunter and Buckhorn fires will be open to harvesting this spring, Woolley said. Designated campsites for commercial pickers will be established at the Black Canyon snow park and at the South Summit and North Summit snow parks near Loup Loup Pass.
The commercial harvesters are required to use the designated camps, which will be equipped with garbage dumpsters and portable toilets.
“Directing commercial harvesters to designated camping areas will minimize impacts to fragile soils within the fire areas, help with vegetation recovery, protect riparian areas from large group camping impacts, and limit impact to wildlife,” Woolley said.
The Forest Service will also have information about mushroom harvesting available at the campsites, he said. Commercial harvesters are required to have a permit from the Forest Service. The permits range from $20 for a four-day permit to $100 for a season permit, which runs from April 15 through July 31. Commercial harvesters generally know they need a permit and come to Forest Service offices to purchase them, Woolley said. Communicating with the pickers is sometimes complicated by language barriers, Woolley added. “In some cases there’s only one person in a group who speaks English,” he said. “We’ll be translating our information into Spanish, Russian, Vietnamese and Cambodian.”
People harvesting mushrooms for their own consumption are not required to have a permit, and are restricted to three gallons of mushrooms a day, Woolley said. A new requirement this year is that they are required to make a vertical cut down the stem of each mushroom or remove the stem immediately after harvest.
“This will make mushrooms worthless as a commercial product. It’s an easy way to differentiate personal use from commercial use,” he said.
Harvesting morels “is petty heavy-duty manual labor,” Woolley said. He said commercial pickers take their mushrooms to “buying stations … off national forest system land somewhere. They might set up in a grocery store parking lot. They’ll buy the mushrooms right there on site and daily ship them out.”
Some buyers dry the mushrooms immediately, Woolley said. Transactions are cash-based, he added.
“It’s kind of its own little economy that moves around wherever the mushrooms are available,” Woolley said.
The last time national forests in this area experienced an influx of commercial pickers was in 2007, following the huge Tripod fire that burned 175,000 acres stretching from Winthrop to Conconully and Loomis. Woolley said the Forest Service is basing its preparations for this season on past experience.
“It’s an influx of people that don’t normally come to central Washington,” Woolley said. He said the Forest Service is advising county commissioners and sheriff’s departments in Okanogan, Chelan and Kittitas counties about the anticipated arrival of pickers.
The growing season for morels begins as snow melts and continues through July, but the abundance is affected by weather, said Mick Mueller, an amateur mycologist and environmental coordinator for the Wenatchee River Ranger District. “Soil moisture and temperature vary enough that in some years very few morels pop up in burned areas,” he said.
Morels love burned areas because large amounts of nutrients are released into the soil from burned trees and foliage, Woolley said. The crop is expected to be good not only in the Methow Valley Ranger District, but also in areas that burned last fall on the Chelan, Entiat, Wenatchee River and Cle Elum Ranger Districts as well.
Information about commercial or personal use mushroom harvesting and maps of harvesting areas will be posted by the end of this week on the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest website, www.fs.usda.gov/goto/okanwen/mushroom.
Fresh morels, long considered a culinary delicacy, appear in local grocery stores each spring. Teri Jenkins, who works in the produce department at Hank’s Harvest Foods in Twisp, said the store buys them from local pickers who have a commercial permit.
“They’re really expensive. But people who know what they are really want them,” Jenkins said. The mushrooms sold for $12.99 per pound last year, said Cheryl Judd, produce manager.
File photo by Robin Doggett