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The secret harvest.

Think of a gatherer and you probably envision a pelt-dad primitive grubing for seeds and shoots. Prepare then to meet a modern hunter/gatherer, Pat Moonie. Hardly a primitive, Moonie was selected in 1988 as Lane County, Oregon's Tree Farmer of the Year.

Standing beside his woodlot, he turns to stunted vegetation growing on "site five" soil clay with boulders. "A person would look at this and see nothing but a bunch of brush," he says, "but I can see lots of plants worth money. We've got pussy willow, rose hips, beard moss, thistles, and Oregon white oak. Right over here's three types of flowers that can be dried and sold."

Although revenues from his tree farm still provide most of his income, Moonie says, "These other products are becoming more lucrative each year. My whole way of thinking about managing my land has changed since I got involved with this stuff."

"This stuff" is also called Special Forest Products (SFPs), defined as everything harvested from the forest except mature trees. Perhaps the best-known and best-managed example are boughs and swag for wreaths. Other SFPs include barks for medicines, nuts, herbs, honey, and berries (see "A Potpourri of Special Forest Products" on page 29).

Once collected, these substances become part of a global marketplace. Brokers ship mosses and ferns to florists throughout North America, and pine mushrooms may end up in a New York restaurant or Japanese wok. Drug companies in Europe process cascara bark into laxatives, while grand-fir seeds from Moonie's woodlot in Creswell, Oregon, are today growing into trees in southern Bavaria.

Despite the size and importance of the SFP industry (roughly estimated at $130 million a year and employing over 10,000 people nationwide), this is an industry characterized by a knowledge vacuum. Collectors rarely get permits, buying and selling are usually done "off the books," and land managers, accustomed to managing for wood production, usually do not understand either the value of these commodities or how to manage them.

Large-scale collection of SFPs became important during World War Il when quinine conk, a fungus, was harvested to treat malaria in the South Pacific. Over the years, according to one forester, "a subculture of part-time collectors evolved, but it was pretty informal."

In Oregon's Willamette National Forest, problems posed by collectors became apparent several years ago when Southeast Asians, working as tree planters, noticed the area's abundance of beargrass, which they have traditionally used to weave baskets. They began harvesting the beargrass and caught land managers by surprise.

"I think beargrass has driven the learning curve for resource managers," says Ted Ferrioli, chairman of the forestry subcommittee of Lane County's Rural Resources Development Committee. "Five or six years ago, it wasn't considered a commodity that anyone in the Forest Service would mess with. Then Southeast Asians started getting involved, and literally tons of the stuff were going off the forest. There had always been a small group of native people who were also harvesting it. Pretty soon we had overuse and territorial problems--fistfights in the woods. Land managers had to devise ways to keep the resource sustainable and keep people from beating on each other."

Mike Strange, who manages SFPs for the Willamette, adds, "We always considered beargrass to be a weed that takes over a site and slows the growth of trees. Then suddenly everyone wanted a permit to collect a product we didn't know existed."

Demand for permits is a function of the prices being paid for these products. According to Rolf Anderson of the Willamette's planning and programming staff, "Sometimes large sums of money change hands. We know there are pickups cruising the back roads with $30,000 in cash buying whatever, and this goes on 24 hours a day. Workers out calling for spotted owls report lots of people cruising around at 2, 3, and 4 a.m. In this forest alone, we've got 6,000 miles of well-developed roads and 2,000 miles of secondary roads. It's challenging to police."

The fact is, no one knows how much illegal harvesting really goes on. "We have no sense of the permit-compliance rates since no studies have been done," says Carola Stoney, special agent for the Willamette National Forest. "The yew's a good example; it highlights problems we've had all along. The bark is easy to harvest, there's a high demand, and it's almost impossible to police all the areas where it's found." (See AMERICAN FORESTS, July/August 1991.)

Like beargrass, yew was considered a weed. Loggers used it to break the fall of Douglas-firs, and yews on clearcuts were heaped into piles and burned. Then medical researchers discovered a promising anticancer drug, taxol, extractable from the bark. The National Cancer Institute (NCI) contracted with Bristol-Myers Squibb to obtain 750,000 pounds of yew bark a year. The NCI agreed to provide clinical test data on the drug's effectiveness, and in exchange Bristol-Myers received a seven-year monopoly on selling the drug for treating ovarian cancer. Suddenly the Great Yew Race was on.

The problem was that the U.S. Forest Service, which was writing permits for collecting the bark, had no idea how much yew the national forests contain or how much can be harvested without endangering the tree. So far, the agency has forestalled serious criticism by restricting collection to areas that are already clearcut or scheduled for timber sales--areas where the yew trees would have been cut and burned anyway. But if taxol turns out to be the wonder drug that people hope, pressure to harvest the slow-growing yew could increase drastically. Each cancer patient is expected to need four to six grams of taxol each year, which equates to the bark from six 100-year-old trees.

Another aspect of the SFPs debate is the question of who stands to reap the economic benefits. The highest return for SFPs is achieved through wholesaling and value-added processing, not through collecting of raw materials. As a general rule, the end-user (meaning consumer) pays about eight times what the picker receives. Wholesalers, retailers, and those who do value-added processing get the rest.

"Why shouldn't that increase in capital be captured by the local community?" Ferrioli asks. "Right now these products are often being collected by people who come into an area without permits, remove the resource, and leave."

One of the biggest obstacles to earning greater economic benefits for local communities is overcoming the underground tradition of this industry. "If you walk into Forest Service offices," Ferrioli explains, "and look for permits that would support the volumes of products being harvested, they aren't there. So the fallacious assumption made by land managers is that these products aren't going to market. They are."

Part of the problem with obtaining permits lies with land managers who often do not understand or appreciate the value of these products. As foresters, their focus has always been on trees. "Although the Forest Service is looking at regulations," Rolf Anderson explains, "right now we don't have consistent policies for permits, record keeping, or management. What's needed is to get those policies for the Bureau of Land Management and national and state forests."

Although an Oregon Special Forest Products Council exists and holds monthly meetings, it has not been able to develop a consistent framework for managing these products.

Pressure to adopt consistent policies grew with the creation of a new Oregon company, Firtech, which buys a variety of SFPs from harvesters and resells them to wholesalers. "Right now we're working to fill a 3,000-pound order for princess pine," says Firtech's co-founder, Jack Desmond, "and we'll be buying just about all the cascara bark we can get."

Firtech requires pickers to show copies of permits or letters of permission from private landowners, and Desmond has heard a number of not-so-funny stories. "One of the guys who wanted to collect for us needed 3 1/2 days to get a permit, and when the permit was issued, it was for an area where the product didn't even grow."

Another ranger district tried to charge $50 for a permit to collect cascara bark when everyone else was charging $10. "A lot of our pickers are working on pretty slim margins," Desmond says, "and the price we offer for these products reflects the markets, not the permit costs. It's unfortunate that when people try to go through the proper channels, they get nailed."

One of the reasons public land managers haven't developed consistent policies is lack of funds. According to the Willamette National Forest's Mike Strange: "They give a district a set amount of dollars to handle all its responsibilities and then they say, |Sell moss permits too.' It's tough because products like moss and bark have always been an afterthought. There's no funding to manage them and no targets. Although most districts have someone assigned, they do it because they think it's worthwhile, and this usually means they have to raid other parts of the budget."

Ted Ferrioli adds, "The local resource manager often views these products as a nuisance because they detract from the jobs of timber-sale management, recreation management, accounting, studies of fisheries, wildlife counts, and all those other things the manager is required to do. What's lacking in the system is any kind of management that would control the resources for conservation purposes and manage them for sustainability."

On public lands the responsibility for managing ecosystems (and the SFPs found within those ecosystems) rests with resource managers, notably the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. This responsibility is mandated by the National Environmental Protection Act. Unfortunately, the biological work needed to fulfill those jobs has not been done, so land managers do not know whether harvest levels endanger the resource base.

Add in illegal harvesting, and you've got an impossible management situation.


The U.S. Forest Service has identified the following as being commercially valuable:

Animal Bedding: Chips, sawdust, and shavings are used in kennels, stables, and dairy farms.

Aromatics: Oils, acids, resins, and gums produced ky plants are used in the manufacture of soaps, plastics, perfumes, pharmaceuticals, insecticides, varnishes, and adhesives.

Caning and Basket Making Materials: Willow branches, beargrass, paper birchbark, and strips of white oak and black ash are used in basket-making and for weaving chair seats.

Berries: Fruits from a variety of plants are made into jams and jellies.

Charcoal: Hardwoods such as maple, beech, oak, and hickory make excellent charcoals.

Cooking Greens: Many types of foliage provide nutritious greens.

Cones and Greenery: Cones are collected as a seed source and as accents in floral arrangements. Boughs, ferns, and mosses are sold to florists for decorative uses such as Christmas wreaths.

Dye Stock and Tanning Materials: A variety of plants are used to produce dye stocks and tannin extracts

Herbs and Spices: Forests are important storehouses of hundreds of plants with medicinal and food-flavoring uses.

Honey: Woodlands are home to a variety of distinct honeys.

Mushrooms: Growing international markets are increasing demand for a variety of fungi.

Naval Stores: The gum of several varieties of southern yellow pines are used in making rosin and turpentine.

Nuts: In addition to being in demand as food, nuts are used by industry as glue extenders and polishes. Nut shells are crushed and, injected into oil wells to hold rock fractures open and increase the flow of petroleum.

Ornamental Plants, Trees, and Shrubs: Vegetation for landscaping can either be collected directly from the forest or transplanted as seedlings to nurseries.

Pitchwood, Stumpwood, or Fatwood: The high pitch content found in the stumps of many trees is processed into terpenes, pine oil, and rosin.

Seeds, Seedlings, and Cuttings: Living forests are a primary source of materials needed for reforestation efforts such as Global ReLeaf.

Smokewood and Flavorwood: Woods for adding smoke flavoring are used in the meat - and fish-packing industries.

Soil Conditioners and Amendments: Peat, moss, and chips are mixed into soil or used as a mulch.

Syrup: Maple syrup is an important industry in many parts of the country. Birch also makes good syrup.

James Holbrook Johnson is a professional writer who currently resides in the city of Eugene, Oregon.

Any solutions to these problems must begin with recognition by land managers and local communities of the economic importance of these resources, and that is happening albeit slowly. Clearly, the Forest Service and BLM need to conduct more studies, and that requires funding. Money from sale of permits might be one source, but currently it all goes into the U.S. Treasury.

Another technique is wider use of stewardship agreements such as those employed with entrepreneurs who sell Christmas trees. Those agreements allow contractors to shear for the proper shape and later to harvest as part of precommercial thinning. The results are effective management practices and income for the contractor.

Another possibility is promotion of user groups for each type of SFP. An example is the North American Truffle Hunters Society. Ferrioli explains that user groups typically "develop effective harvesting techniques and user ethics. They can also create a cooperative collaboration with land managers that doesn't exist at present."

Collaborations may result in benefits that go far beyond the forest. Consider the collection of pine mushrooms, which are served in many fine restaurants. "Mushroom identification is a sophisticated art," Ferrioli explains, "and today you've got an anonymous picker, a transient buyer, no permits, no regulatory agencies, and the sale of a food-grade product. So what happens when a guy keels over after eating in a restaurant in L.A.? Someone's responsible, but who?" AF
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Title Annotation:includes related articles; illegal harvesting of special forest products
Author:Johnson, James Holbrook
Publication:American Forests
Date:Mar 1, 1992
Previous Article:Report from Lucy's Woods.
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