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The Politics of Mushrooms

The annual pine mushroom picking season in northwestern BC puts the region's forest management in the spotlight.

By Jim Stirling
Copyright 1998. Contact publisher for permission to use.

Each fall they converge from across Canada and elsewhere with dollar signs in their eyes. They set up extensive tent and recreational vehicle encampments alongside roads. From these base points they scour the countryside in search of their prize.

It's the annual pine mushroom picking season in the Hazelton, Kispiox, Cranberry and Nass regions of northwestern British Columbia, and it's a time when the provincial forest ministry braces itself for criticism. For some, mushroom picking is a pleasant, recreational experience, an opportunity to enjoy the outdoors during an often delightful season. For many more people, however. it's viewed as a way to make good money fast. This usually isn't the case, but the mythology sustains the migration.

Pine Mushrooms

Pine mushrooms are a lucrative cash crop each fall for pickers in northwestern BC. A task force has been established to draft timber harvesting guidelines taking the mushrooms into account, but its work has been stalled.

Buyers' stands spring up among tents and RVs. Buyers pay cash for mushrooms, perhaps $40/kg if demand, crop size and quality are high. Each day, the fruits of the pickers' work are taken to Terrace. From there they are flown to Vancouver and then east, usually to Japan, where the mushrooms' freshness ensures premium prices.

Pine mushrooms are mycorrhizal, meaning they have a symbiotic relationship with the roots of living trees, rather than a saprophytic one that feeds on dead trees. Most mushroom pickers in most seasons fail to reach their volume expectations. It takes a good eye and experience to locate and properly harvest the most productive pine mushroom sites. And the competition is intense. The forest industry is a useful scapegoat for frustrated pickers. A petition circulated during the 1997 picking season gathered more than 300 signatures, urging the Ministry of Forests to preserve mushroom sites in BC's northwest. The Ministry of Forests is well aware of its responsibilities as stewards of the public forests, and is keen to develop a co-operative approach to better manage the pine mushroom resource.

"You can't protect the resource if you don't know where it is," points out Laura Bolster, a planning forester with the Prince Rupert Forest Region. And the mushroom pickers are not about to tell. The profit motive promotes deviousness and secrecy among the pickers. Many will go to elaborate lengths, including setting false trails, to protect areas deemed to be productive from other pickers.

Bolster says only preliminary small-scale research has been done concerning the relationship between harvesting timber and picking mushrooms. She says indications conclude that little damage occurs to mushroom sites if a block is 30 per cent cut and ground disturbance minimized. But developing operationally viable plans across large areas constitutes a huge problem.

Information on BC's three major mushroom species is available from forest service and environment ministry offices, along with pointers on proper picking methods and camping requirements. But the work of a task force established to draft timber harvesting guidelines cognizant of the pine mushroom resource and the potential impacts on timber supply has been stalled. Money and the Forest Practices Code are the reasons, according to a forest ministry spokesman in Victoria. Ministry budgets continue to be slashed, and changes to the Forest Practices Code are a priority and monopolize staff time and effort.

Meanwhile, front-line forest service people continue to get static from disgruntled pickers in BC's pine mushroom zones.

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