Don’t expect to see any dollar signs popping out of the ground in western Montana’s forest fire scars as the annual morel mushroom season gets underway.
“There is no commercial harvest on the Flathead National Forest this year,” forest spokeswoman Janette Turk said early last week. “A lot of the public is liking that – not having big commercial operations in these areas. You can go with family and you’re not competing with lots of these commercial folks.”
The same is true for the Kootenai National Forest, Lolo National Forest and Bitterroot National Forest, all of which logged hundreds or thousands of acres of potential mushroom country last summer. Morel mushrooms appear every spring in riparian areas, but sprout in profusion in the blackened, grass-free soils of forest fires.
Instead, all four forests have imposed free permits for those wanting up to 20 gallons of mushrooms for personal use, with no permit needed for five gallons or less and occasional $20 charges to pick in certain areas. All those mushrooms are supposed to be sliced lengthwise before leaving the forest to ensure they’re not destined for sale.
The situation has frustrated mushroom buyer Joe Daugherty of Grants Pass, Oregon.
“We were planning to come to Montana, but it’s a no-pick state,” Daugherty said last week. “I think they’re blatantly going overboard in shutting the forests down. There’s millions of dollars sitting out there rotting. It’s going to get picked regardless.”
Daugherty claimed he paid about $67,000 to commercial wholesale pickers in Washington, Oregon and Idaho in the last nine days of May, and shipped about 5,000 pounds of morels to European buyers so far this season.
Turk and counterpart Willie Sykes at the Kootenai National Forest said the law enforcement challenges of supervising commercial picking were part of the reason to skip the for-profit market this year.
“A big reason is it’s hard to administer,” Sykes said Monday. “You’re having law enforcement out checking on permits, and we had fires all over the forest last summer.”
The Kootenai allows up to 5 gallons of picking without a permit, and up to 20 gallons with a free, personal-use permit available at all ranger stations. Those wanting more than 20 gallons are charged $20. The neighboring Idaho Panhandle National Forest has virtually the same rules and prohibition on commercial picking. Both forests share territory affected by the Clark Fork Complex of fires, which burned nearly 15,000 acres along the Montana-Idaho border last year.
The Flathead Forest allows free picking in its smaller burn areas, but has a special rule for the 88,000 acres scorched by the Bear Creek and Trail Creek fires along the South Fork of the Flathead River. Personal-use pickers there must get a $20 charge permit to collect up to 20 gallons there, or at the Glacier Rim and Sheep fire areas outside of Glacier National Park.
“The morel season is really abundant,” said Izaak Walton Inn sales manager Holly Dumay, where the Sheep fire came within a mile of the community of Essex. “They’re harvesting them like crazy. You can’t really tell from the Izaak Walton that there was a fire. It was up on the mountain, and you have to climb quite a ways to get there.”
Forget about pursuing that activity inside Glacier Park. While the nearly 18,000-acre Thompson fire and the 4,311-acre Reynolds fire captivated tourists last year, the National Park Service treats the resulting mushrooms like wildflowers.
“We don’t allow any mushroom harvesting whatsoever,” Glacier spokeswoman Margie Steigerwald said. “In 2003, when so much of the park burned, it became an issue. We had difficulty differentiating commercial from private use, and saw a lot of damage where people were overharvesting. Also, it’s considered a prime food for bears, and we don’t want to compete with the bears.”
The Lolo and Bitterroot national forests had much less fire activity in 2015, although morel hunters have reported success in the 12,283-acre Fish Creek burn south of Alberton. Both forests are allowing pickers to take up to 5 gallons a day without a permit, but disallowing commercial picking.
“I think we’ve given out 25 free permits for people wanting to take 20 gallons,” Bitterroot spokesman Tod McKay said. “Back in 2011 or 2013 with the Saddle, Mustang and Sawtooth fires, in the following years we’d give out four, five, six times that amount. A lot of folks like to travel around the region, tracking the fire activity. It all depends on the previous summer.”