Forest Service: There’s morel to fire story |

Forest Service: There’s morel to fire story

After the wildfires of 2002, conditions are ripe on national forests on the Western Slope for a huge crop of morel mushrooms – valued by chefs from Japan to Germany.

After watching the mushroom industry attract hundreds of gatherers to national forests in the Northwest, U.S. Forest Service officials are getting ready for a similar phenomenon in western Colorado.

“Fire stimulates fungus to just go nuts,” said Andy Kratz, botanist for the Forest Service Rocky Mountain Region. And the mixed pine, fir and aspen forests roasted by last summer’s wildfires are ideal picking grounds for the morel, he said.

Fetching $5 a pound when sold to a roadside buyer at the end of a picking day, the morels are carefully packed, trucked to an airport and flown to Pacific Rim countries, Europe and major cities stateside.

Mushroom scouts began sizing up western Colorado wildfires last year, while the embers were still hot, said Randy Wilkerson, Forest Service spokesman in Denver. The scouts are expected to return this spring, as the snow melts, to decide if the morel crop is worth pursuing.

“We won’t know for sure until it happens,” Wilkerson said. “We could have a really wet spring, or not enough moisture, and not get the mushrooms. Or even if we have morels, the harvesters may go elsewhere.

“But we need to be prepared in case 500 people are standing outside our door some morning, waiting for a permit,” he said.

He’s not exaggerating. In 2001, staffers for the Bitterroot National Forest in western Montana sold 1,500 mushroom gathering permits.

Officials for the White River, Routt, Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre, San Juan and Rio Grande national forests are making plans to issue permits, set aside camping areas, map out off-limits areas, publish an informational brochure and post a Web site.

Mushroom gatherers, who are often Asian-Americans and Asian immigrants, are well aware that they must obtain a permit, which generally runs about $20 a week, per person. Buyers, who set up a roadside station, are required to ask each gatherer for their permit number so they know they’re getting legal mushrooms, according to Dick Dieckman, forester for the Rocky Mountain Region.

In Washington and Oregon, Forest Service staffers distribute multi-lingual materials and hire translators to communicate with the gatherers.

“We’re aware that could be a problem,” said Wilkerson. “The important thing is to open the lines of communication.”

Mushroom gathering is hard work that takes agility, endurance and an eye for likely mushroom fruiting spots. Gatherers usually strap an open plastic trash can on their backs. Their hands are free to cut the mushroom and toss it back into the can, Dieckman said.

“It’s becoming a bigger business. More people are getting interested, because you can make a lot of money,” he said. “The collectors eke out a living, but the buyers with the right connections can make a lot.

“In the Pacific Northwest, it’s a $1 million-a-year business. There’s a big markup once that stuff gets out of the woods,” Dieckman said.

The first year after a wildfire is usually the best for harvesting mushrooms, Kratz said. “People go after the first big flush. These mushrooms really pop up after a fire, but they disappear after the forest recovers.”

The gathering season may last a few weeks or a couple of months, depending on weather and how the fire burned. Mushrooms grow best in lightly or moderately burned areas.

The fungal fruits don’t emerge until the soil temperature tops 50 degrees, which can happen more quickly than usual on charred ground.

Wilkerson expects to hear from mushroom scouts by late March or early April, and said the picking season – if conditions hold – would start in May.

Contact Heather McGregor: 945-8515, ext. 517

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