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Forests suddenly off-limits to pickers.

Byline: Diane Dietz The Register-Guard

An abrupt change in U.S. Forest Service policy will leave thousands of Oregon mushroom harvesters without a means of picking up spare cash - beginning now, on the very cusp of chanterelle season.

But that's not all.

The lawsuit-driven policy shift also may severely restrict the availability of Christmas trees on Forest Service land, disappointing as many as 65,000 wild-tree-hunting families during the coming holidays.

Forest Service officials say they have no choice. The restrictions come from a California court ruling that says the agency has to give the public appeal rights - now - with regard to nearly every project or activity the forest allows or under- takes.

But environmental attorneys who brought the case say the Forest Service is overreacting by including noncontroversial activities such as Christmas tree cutting and mushroom hunting.

Brookings mushroom buyer Tom Way has been frantically calling congressional offices and Forest Service officials, but no one has given him any hope of reprieve, he said.

"They're not sympathizing," he said. "They're not saying, `We'll allow a public review of the decision.' They just terminated it, and that's the way it is."

Oregon's wild-mushroom industry is worth between $10 million and $100 million annually, said David Pilz, a forest mycologist at Oregon State University.

But even that wide range is a guess.

"Nobody tracks it. Most of the actual purchases from mushroom harvesters are in cash. It's somewhat of a secretive industry," he said.

The delicate golden chanterelles are shipped to Europe and to fine restaurants all over the United States, he said. Others go to Japan.

Many of the harvesters are Southwest Oregon residents who work part time and rely on mushroom picking to add a couple of thousand dollars to their annual income.

Cottage Grove resident Janelle Plowright, for instance, worked at an Emporium store until it was closed, then worked on and off at Wal-Mart. Her boyfriend is a roofer. Both of them supplement their incomes through mushroom harvesting. Plowright's three children often join in the hunt.

"You get in a big patch and you get an adrenaline rush," Plowright said Tuesday while stemming hundreds of chanterelles with the flick of her knife.

The Forest Service couldn't immediately say how many permits it issues to pickers in Southwest Oregon. The price ranges from $20 for a five-day permit to an average of $250 for a seasonal pass. Last year, the agency collected $309,124 in those permit fees.

Way said he gets mushrooms from 500 pickers who harvest in the woods between Brookings and Crescent City, Calif. He said he paid out $10.8 million to them last season.

"If I don't hand that money out, that's $10 million in revenue they're going to lose," he said. "That's a major economic disaster for this community."

Businesses in Eugene also may be hurt.

The timing couldn't be worse, said John Barnes, owner of Pacific Mushrooms. He has been a local wholesaler for two decades. "We support ourselves in October, November, December," he said.

The restrictions also apply to the harvest of beargrass, moss and other forest products that wholesale florists buy.

Wholesaler Casey Jonquil said he couldn't believe that the agency would halt permitting without contacting people in the wild-mushroom business.

"They don't seem to understand that this is a multi- million-dollar business that pumps cash into very depressed small, local economies," said Jonquil, president of a major Portland-based wholesale company, Alpine Forager.

But Jonquil said the permit closure may not hurt the industry as much as some would think. Pickers still can make arrangements to harvest on private forest acreage or Bureau of Land Management lands. And some will roam the forbidden grounds of the national forests as if nothing had changed.

"These guys will go out and pick and take the risk of getting busted for picking illegally," Jonquil said. "They're not stupid. They're going to `get' that the Forest Service doesn't have any money to enforce anything, so what's there to worry about?"

The ticket for removing a forest product without authorization is $400. The forest patrol may arrest pickers who repeatedly break the law and require them to appear in front of a federal magistrate.

The magistrate can issue penalties of up to $5,000 in fines and/or six months of jail.

Hobbyist mushroom hunters also are affected by the change. The Forest Service won't issue personal use permits or allow casual collection on the affected forests.

All of the Forest Service restrictions stemmed from a July 7 ruling by U.S. District Judge James Singleton Jr., who was presiding in an eastern California court.

Environmental groups launched the case to challenge the Bush administration's directive that allowed relaxed public oversight in the case of smaller Forest Service projects. At issue was a timber thinning sale in California.

Before the directive, Forest Service officials could undertake many minor projects without going through elaborate environmental analysis as long as they were deemed of limited public interest and the agency published a notice.

The president issued the new directive in the wake of the 2003 Biscuit Fire in Southern Oregon in order to speed thinning projects meant to reduce wildfire danger.

The new orders were:

"You don't need really a notice on this, you can go ahead and get the work done because it's a time-sensitive thing," said Al Matecko, spokesman for the agency's Pacific Northwest Region.

But the judge reversed the president, saying the administration circumvented a congressional guarantee of public notice, comment and appeal with regard to projects on federal land. His decision applies nationally.

Last week, agency lawyers in Washington directed the Forest Service to give 30 days public notice on all the projects undertaken after the July 7 ruling - unless a project had been subject to a full environmental review, including public notice, previously.

In the meantime, all the activities had to stop.

So, the Willamette National Forest stopped issuing mushroom permits. And it hustled a public notice about Christmas-tree cutting into The Register-Guard's legal notices on Oct. 3.

After 30 days, the agency will see whether any of the people answering the call for comment want to appeal the agency's decision to allow Christmas tree cutting.

If any do, the activity would remain halted for 45 days to give the people who commented time to appeal. If an appeal comes in, the agency would have 60 days to respond. The four-month process would mean bye-bye wild-Christmas tree harvest for 2005.

Each national forest has to publish its own notices and manage its own appeals.

"We're hoping something gets squared away and settled before Christmas trees, but at this point, it's hard to say," said John Zapell, a spokesman for the Siuslaw National Forest.

The policy change has political dimensions.

The first thing the Forest Service did after the judge's ruling was to announce that it could not cut an 80-foot blue spruce in New Mexico that had been earmarked to serve as the nation's Christmas tree at the U.S. Capitol.

The environmentalists who filed the initial lawsuit cried foul, saying the ruling doesn't apply to such popular and time-honored activities as Christmas tree cutting or mushroom hunting.

Matt Kenna, Western Environmental Law Center attorney who argued the case on behalf of environmentalists, sent letters to the Forest Service saying that's not what the ruling meant.

"It's a total overreaction," he said. "Having lost the case, they're now trying to overapply it to put us in a bad light.

"What happens now is the old rules go back into play, but they are not acknowledging that. They are trying to say that the ruling doesn't allow them to do anything without putting it to public comment and appeal, which is not even fathomable - that was never in play in the case."

But the Forest Service points to a clause in Singleton's order that says: Federal law "certainly permits exclusion of environmentally insignificant projects from the appeals process. For example, actions such as maintaining Forest Service buildings or mowing ranger station lawns need not be subject to notice, comment and appeal procedures."

U.S. Justice Department lawyers interpreted that to mean the agency must provide public notice for virtually all activities besides mowing lawns.

`We were given that clear guidance from our Washington office, which was quite emphatic, that `all' means `all,' ' spokesman Al Matecko said. "We are bound by our legal representatives to say this is what it means."

SEVERE RESTRICTIONS

A court ruling requires some national forests to shut down popular activities such as mushroom harvesting and Christmas tree cutting. Here's the rundown on local forests:

Willamette National Forest

Mushrooms: No permits will be issued for any variety.

Firewood gathering: Allowed, when associated with logging sale slash.

Christmas tree cutting: None allowed, for now.

Siuslaw National Forest

Mushrooms: Will honor permits issued earlier for matsutake, but not for any other variety of mushroom.

Firewood: Allowed, when associated with logging sale slash.

Christmas trees: None for now.

Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest

Mushrooms: No permits or for any variety on the Chetco, Gold Beach, Powers, Galice and the Illinois Valley ranger districts. Mushroom permits will be issued on the Prospect, Butte Falls, Applegate and the Ashland ranger districts.

Firewood: Allowed, within designated areas.

Christmas trees: None for now.

Umpqua National Forest

Mushrooms: Will be issuing permits for all varieties.

Firewood: Will be issuing permits.

Christmas trees: Will be issuing permits.

CAPTION(S):

Mushroom picker Janelle Plowright cleans chanterelle mushrooms at a selling operation in Cottage Grove.
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Title Annotation:Government; Mushroom harvesting and Christmas tree cutting are threatened by a new policy
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Oct 12, 2005
Words:1584
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