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Fungus fever.

Oregon's mushroom harvest brings back prospectors looking for gold and freedom.

It is rumored that they pack pistols and carry wads of cash. Their diet is mainly songbirds and porcupines. Most are running from trouble of one kind or another and will not talk to strangers for tear they'll be discovered by the IRS or the INS.

But Chin and three fellow immigrants are mushroomers who will invite a visitor into their camp and offer her a seat at their fire. They will talk about their former lives in war-torn Cambodia and the horrors they would like to forget. They will show off the mushrooms they picked that day and reveal approximately, though not exactly, where they found them. And once the talk turns to mushrooms, it inevitably leads to riches - always someone else's. There's the lucky guy who sold a single matsutake for $600, or another who is sitting on secret morel patch worth thousands when it matures.

About the only thing Chin and company won't divulge are their last names. Reclusive as gold miners, these wild mushroom pickers are part of a subterranean economy where it is often difficult to separate truth from myth. In fact, the emergence of the wild mushroom-picking industry in Oregon, worth perhaps as much as $50 million, has been like a gold rush, complete with influxes of people, scams, violence, ethnic tension and tales of riches, all fed by flying rumors.

This summer, fungal fortunes are being sought in the burned forests around Ukiah, about 45 miles south of Pendleton. It's already something of a mushroom Mecca; pickers know morels, while not quite as pricey as the sweet-smelling matsutakes found in the Cascades, will be plentiful following last year's wildfires. Morels are the only mushrooms known to proliferate following a forest fire. With more than 100,000 charred acres in Eastern Oregon to pick from, the rush is on.

The route between Ukiah and the ghost town of Granite gives a sense of what it might have been like 130 years ago when gold brought a similar sort of fortune hunter. Scattered throughout the forest, along a stream or around a pond, are dozens of tent cities. These days instead of canvas it's blue plastic tarps, strung from trees or hung from minivans with predominantly California or Washington plates. Professional harvesters have been flocking to the Blue Mountains since the late 1980s, when world events changed what was mostly a local recreation into an industry.

"After Chernobyl, Europeans turned to the Pacific Northwest for wild mushrooms," says Floyd Reese of Northwest Mushroom Co. in La Grande. "Mushrooming was pretty low-profile until then." At the peak of morel season Reese might ship 30 tons in a single day to Europe, where mushroom consumption is three times that of the United States. There, brokers pay an average $8 to $10 per pound. Fresh morels retail for $12 to $14 per pound. Depending on supply and consumer demand, prices can go much higher. Last year in France they went up to $47 per pound in the off season.

Most of the morels harvested here will be shipped to foreign markets within 72 hours after picking. The first segment of this global trade begins in towns adjacent to the mushroom strikes.

Ukiah, population 270, swells into a mushroom metropolis every evening. More than 1,500 pickers hit town to check out prices at the 25 or so tents, trailers and pickup trucks that serve as buying stations. Several tons of morels leave here each night from April through August.

Buyers in the eastern portions of Oregon and Washington will snatch up more than 2 million pounds of mushrooms this year. Although chanterelles are common in specialty food stores, the coastal range fungi make up a fraction of Oregon's wild mushroom-industry, which is dominated by morels and matsutakes. The Eastern Oregon pickers will earn over $10 million for the harvest. In the Cascades, the fall matsutake crop could bring another $8 to $15 million.

"Leave all weapons in your car"

Pickers spend much of what they earn in nearby communities, but despite the economic boom, not everyone likes the influx of people. Outnumbered, some locals feel uneasy with the multi-cultural, soot-stained, gun-tooting outsiders. A sign at Granny's Mini Mart in Ukiah warns pickers to "Please leave all weapons in your car or truck; not allowed in store!"

Mushroomers say it's really a sign that they are unwelcome, even if they come unarmed. There is a feeling among pickers and buyers that many of the small towns they frequent want their dollars but not them.

But at Dan's Ukiah Service there's a don't-ask, don't-tell policy on concealed weapons and an open effort to accommodate mushroomers. The combination gas station/restaurant/pool hall offers $3 showers, free drinking water, $1 goat meat tacos and chopsticks at every table.

"Racism is the quickest way out of business," says owner Doug Vincent, known as Papa Doug to his patrons. "We try and keep this a happy place."

Happy and busy. Vincent does twice the business during mushroom season that he does in hunting season. Shorter deer and elk hunting periods and a lottery-like system for tags have had a dramatic effect on the hunter trade in communities like Ukiah. Hunters now come in smaller groups and spend less time in the area. Many arrive in self-contained RVs, fully stocked with enough supplies to last through their short stay. For the most part, it's get there, get your deer and get out. "It's no longer a leisurely family vacation," Vincent says.

Mushroomers, on the other hand, can spend months in the area and are dependent on local communities for supplies. At Dan's Ukiah Service (named for Vincent's son), trucks and minivans are stacked up for gas at the only pumps in town. Inside what was once Vincent's log truck shop, pickers wait in line for showers, play pool, have a hamburger, a taco or splurge on a banana split. Latin American, Laotian and Cambodian immigrants, hippie holdovers, ex-loggers and grizzled brush rats mix as freely as language barriers allow. A group of Vietnamese pickers, clad in military-style clothing and red berets, creates a noticeable tension among the other Southeast Asians. They take a table on the patio, play cards and keep to themselves. The scars of war remain, but a little distance seems to hold the peace.

The blue-tarp encampments that now crop up annually in the forests of Eastern Oregon tend to group by nationality; the inhabitants, like Chin, lean toward anonymity. But Chin's first-name-only routine may have more to do with his past than the present. Once a special forces soldier in the Cambodian army, Chin seems to be hiding from memories more than anything else. "I don't want to remember history. I lost too much," he says. "I lost everything."

He now calls Tacoma home and supports himself by foraging in the forests of Oregon and Washington. "I live from the land," he says smiling. "I am free. I have no boss."

After the morels play out, Chin and his companions will head west to cut bear-grass, used in basket making. Later it will be ferns and salal brush for floral arrangements, and finally matsutakes for the big bucks. "Here, I just pay my gas. In Crescent Lake, with the matsutakes, I do better."

Chin says his years spent fighting in the jungles of Southeast Asia trained him only to kill. Before turning to, the woods of the Pacific Northwest he had found few opportunities in America for a man without formal education. "In this country the educated rule. In Cambodia they get killed."

Chin's fellow mushroomers nod in agreement. They are sitting around a campfire, warming themselves after a chilly day spent in the ashes of the Tower fire. Their hands are black with soot, their clothes soiled. They smell of morels and sweat. In the back of a new yet road-weary pickup are two buckets of mushrooms waiting to be sold later in the evening when the price may be higher. The men will make about $75 each.

Reports of mushroom riches have been overstated, but there is a living to be made. In that regard, these pickers are not much different from others who have historically sought to extract dollars from the forest. The stories that circulate about them and their conduct in the quest for fungal fortunes have become legend. But if Chin and company are packing pistols, they have them well concealed. If they've been illegally fishing in the nearby pond, they would be hard pressed to hook a rainbow trout with the deep-sea outfit someone has propped against a tree. If they've been eating odd wildlife or out-of-season deer there is no evidence around their campsite. There is, however, a noticeable amount of garbage scattered about. Plastic milk containers, beer cans and assorted litter tumble in the breeze. Chin says they plan to haul it into Ukiah soon, where Dumpsters have been set up at the ranger station for pickers' use.

Up the road from Chin's camp, Melvin, a retiree from Oakridge, hunts mushrooms to help stretch his Social Security check. It hasn't been a productive day. His plastic bucket contains only a dozen small morels. The area he is scouring, in the heart of the burn and near the road, has already been picked over. Canine companions Bruce and Suzie are further hindering efforts. "I have to get to the mushrooms before they trample them," Melvin explains, shoving the 100-pound plus Bruce aside before he can destroy another morel. Tonight, Melvin says he won't bother selling what he has picked. He'll just go back to camp and cook them, try to find a better patch for a little cash tomorrow.

For Melvin, like most other mushroomers here, the job is more about freedom and being in the woods than it is about money anyway. "All my life I had to work for other people," he says. "A few years ago I discovered mushrooming. Now I'm the boss and I'm out here all the time."

The buying circus

Still, there's a touch of gold fever in every mushroomer. "It gets in your blood," says John Filegar, a buyer for Cascade Mushroom Co. of Portland. "There's always a chance you'll hit the motherlode when the price is high."

Of the two dozen or more buying stations around Ukiah, a third contract with Cascade, the largest distributor of wild mushrooms in the world. Filegar is the only one to set up shop within the boundaries of the Umatilla National Forest. The permit cost $500, too steep for many buyers. It's worth it to this former picker to be out of town and among the trees, even if they are mostly burned. He uses a cell phone to stay up on prices and drives into Ukiah each evening to meet Cascade's refrigerated truck when it arrives. Today he will pay $4.50 a pound for "fire morels," which are more attractive than the naturals he'll buy for $1 less.

In the afternoon, just before the pickers begin arriving, Filegar fires up the Honda generator that runs his digital scale. He ices down a few cases of soda and beer for the thirsty. In town, where buyers are more plentiful and more competitive, frozen chickens or hamburger patties are sometimes offered as enticement for mushroomers to sell to a particular buyer.

Filegar insists that isn't his game. "I've picked for a living. I know what it's like working in those burns and how good a cold drink can taste at the end of the day."

As the pickers start drifting in, they head first to Filegar's cooler then to his buying table. This isolated buying station will pay out about $2,500 today, and the season hasn't peaked yet. Despite the abundant cash on hand, Filegar doesn't worry about robbery. "I've never been threatened in any way. These people aren't criminals. To them, success is dictated by how hard you work."

In Ukiah, buyers set up in Doug Vincent's vacant lot. For $50 a week they get a parking spot, an electrical hookup and restroom privileges. George Evans and his daughter, Julene Carnahan, buy for a French broker whose name they can't pronounce. They have a refrigerated trailer, which prevents moisture loss and gives them an edge over the other buyers. Today, the French are paying $1 less per pound and Evans and Carnahan are not attracting any pickers. In fact, they're sending them to other buyers, Lying Larry in particular.

"Mind games," Evans says. "It would make the Ringling Brothers dizzy to watch this circus."

The circus he refers to is a fungus bazaar where pickers wait as long as they can before selling their harvest, hoping to drive prices up. Morels lose moisture and weight rapidly, so pickers usually have only a few hours to hold out. Buyers compete with each other, but all are held to their distributor's daily price. It usually allows them to make about 50 cents on each pound of morels they purchase. To fill contracts, buyers sometimes must cut their profit margin and pay more than they would like.

Evans, a ruddy-faced native Oregonian, has been in the business since before there really was a business. He once bought mushrooms for a broker who sold to the White House. "The Secret Service would come and check us out all the time."

Evans is no fly-by-night buyer. He's established enough to sit out a night and wait for a profitable price.

Lying Larry (the only name he will disclose) is anything but established. He's a renegade among renegades and seems to like it that way. Strutting from one buying station to another, boosting his price, arguing with anyone who will engage, Lying Larry is a guy best avoided. Tonight, though, pickers are overlooking his eccentric behavior and lining up at his makeshift table. Evans says Larry will take a loss when he sells and overbuying could put him out of business.

But eliminating a competitor isn't Evans' main goal in referring pickers to another buyer. If they get a good price from Lying Larry, it will encourage them to pick more mushrooms. Then when the price stabilizes, they'll remember Evans did them a good turn and sell to him instead of the questionable Larry.

Evans and Carnahan travel all over the West, purchasing $3 million to $4 million in mushrooms, berries and other wild edibles each year. It's a life Carnahan thinks is largely misunderstood. "People see us and herd their kids across the street, afraid we'll shoot them," she says. "Not that many people carry guns anymore. All those rumors had people thinking they needed to be armed."

"Media hype," Evans says.

Bullets in the forest

Not that the woods are entirely tranquil. For Bob Wolf, a law enforcement officer with the Ukiah Ranger District, the appearance of morels brings long days. Throughout the late spring and early summer about 2,500 pickers will stalk the 900,000 acres he patrols. During this period he will respond to an average 10 calls per day. Compare that to the autumn hunting season when nearly 50,000 hunters pass through with only 10 incidents the entire time, and it's easy to see how mushroomers have acquired a reputation for lawlessness.

Wolf insists most disputes involving pickers are relatively minor. "You read about the bloody mushroom wars of Eastern Oregon, but I've never seen any blood." He does see guns, though, hence the bullet-resistant vest bulging under his green U.S. Forest Service uniform.

A picker was murdered near Elgin three years ago (whether it was mushroom related is still disputed) and reports of gunfire are frequent. Generally, most "shootings" that Wolf investigates are simply a case of one mushroomer signaling to another. Late in the day, as picking parties return to their appointed rendezvous, car horns begin honking for the same reason. Some of the gunfire, however, Wolf knows is deliberate attempts to discourage competition. "But how do you prove the reason a guy shot in the air was to run someone off a patch?"

When there is bloodshed, it's more likely to involve wildlife. "With some, it's anything they can find to put in the stew. I've observed some pretty gross meals, guts, feathers and all," Wolf says, He often checks the fire pits of suspected poachers for bones. A recent case involved a calf elk. It turned out to be a salvaged road-kill, an illegal act, but one more tolerable than the calculated taking of game.

Wildlife biologists are more concerned about the toll the human traffic is taking on prime elk habitat during calving season. Authorities now close roads in many areas to reduce access. No studies have been conducted yet, but Wolf has seen elk scatter when pickers begin working an area, then calmly return as soon as the coast is clear. "Pickers work fast and they don't come back through a patch for days, if at all."

Bullets and habitat damage aside, the most common complaint about the pickers is the litter they leave behind. Wolf has found abandoned encampments where garbage, two or three months' worth, had been stashed behind a fallen tree or buried under an inch of dirt.

"They thought that was good enough. You don't find elk camps left that way."

Because so many pickers are recent immigrants from Southeast Asia and Latin America, cultural differences are considered to be a major part of the problem. Education, Dumpsters and camping permits that let Wolf track who leaves a messy site have helped. Picking-without-permit violations are also down since Wolf began setting up random check points.

"We had only 50% compliance five years ago. Now it's closer to 90%."

This year his biggest challenge will be keeping commercial pickers off several thousand charred acres in the North Fork John Day Wilderness, a tempting hunk of mushroom heaven reserved for recreational pickers.

At least once or twice during the mushroom season, search and rescue teams will be called. Pickers in pursuit of the perfect patch can wander so deep into unfamiliar territory that they are can't find their way back. One lost picker survived for days on four grouse eggs. When he was found, he had a single bullet remaining in his pistol.

"He saved it for the big foxes,"Wolf explains. "That's what the Laotians and Cambodians call coyotes."

The damage

The Umatilla, Malheur and Wallowa Whitman national forests have been issuing commercial mushroom permits for the past several years. They sell for $2 per day or $50 annually and come with an industrial camping permit, which restricts pickers to unimproved sites. The idea is to preserve developed campgrounds for recreational campers; most pickers seem happy to segregate into ethnically compatible camps throughout the forest.

In matsutake country, the Deschutes and Winema national forests, permits are higher - $10 per day or $200 for the season.

"We raised fees to discourage hit and run folks, weekend pickers who did lots of damage," says Jerry Smith of the Chemult Ranger district.

The damage was at its worst in the early 1990s when Canadian matsutake yields were down. Stories flew about the Japanese emperor desperately seeking ceremonial matsutakes for a royal wedding. Rumors of a single mushroom bringing $600 sent hoards of inexperienced treasure hunters into the woods. The fungal fever caused some to use unsound harvest practices, such as raking and digging. Turf conflicts and clashes arose between recreational pickers out for fun and commercial pickers out for profit. One Asian picker was murdered in an apparent robbery.

The two Central Oregon forests raised fees, put tighter controls on camping and started a picker education program that requires all permit buyers to watch a seven-minute, multilingual training video.

"It's working," Smith says. "Harvesters are becoming more experienced. They're developing a long-term perspective."

Taking the long view on fungi goes beyond the continued ability to pick mushrooms. Most of the commercially-sought varieties in the Pacific Northwest are the fruit of what scientist call mycorrhizal fungi. They have dependent relationships with a number of forest plants, particularly lumber-producing pine and fir trees. Beneath the forest floor, fungal threads form a mat, like a giant blotter pad, which soaks up food and water for host trees and protects them from disease-causing organisms. In Europe, a dramatic reduction in mushroom fruiting has foresters concerned.

In the Pacific Northwest, mushrooms and truffles are part of several animals' diets, including the northern flying squirrel, which turns out to be a favorite prey of the notorious northern spotted owl. Some scientists worry that a decline in mushrooms could harm the federally protected bird.

They are also concerned about soil compaction from thousands of tramping feet, and how overeager pickers scratching for young button mushrooms and truffles beneath the duff layer could damage the blotter pad protecting valuable trees. But most scientists studying fungi say there is little evidence, so far, that removing mushrooms harms the forest ecosystem.

"It is widely thought to be like plucking an apple from a tree," explains Catherine Parks, plant pathologist at the Pacific Northwest Research Station in La Grande. "There are many countries where picking has been going on for centuries and good crops continue to come up year after year. What's happening in Europe is probably the result of pollution, not overpicking, since both edible and inedible species are affected."

Studies are now under way that should help scientists better understand mushrooms and how to manage the resource so that an estimated 11,000 commercial pickers can continue to forage.

That's just fine with Papa Doug Vincent, who plans to open a second mushroomer hangout in Central Oregon. The ex-logger wants to see this latest group of forest workers prosper. In his view, the tales of picker violence and woodland havoc have been as overblown as the $600 matsutake.

"These people have the frontier spirit, but they aren't wild. They're creating dollars instead of absorbing them. They're a great value to this community and this country."

Patti Hudson traveled with photographer Eric Sines throughout Eastern Oregon this spring to report on the underground foraging economy. The husband-and-wife team have a novel existence of their own: They live in a battery powered cabin near Long Creek, where they cover rural issues for Oregon Business magazine's Eastern Oregon section. They also are frequent contributors to national equestrian publications.
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Title Annotation:mushroom wars in Oregon
Author:Hudson, Patti
Publication:Oregon Business
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Aug 1, 1997
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