Eruption of morel pickers descends on acres of burned national forest

People are incurable pack rats when they get in the outdoors.

They'll organize entire outings around collecting one thing or another - antlers, pretty rocks, driftwood, old bottles, wildflowers, berries.

Some of the things they pick up are actually good for something, and few stir the hunter-gatherer urges more than the emergence of morel mushrooms in the spring.

Under ordinary circumstances, finding these most-prized edible fungi involves knowing where morels pop up historically, quite a bit of plain-old poking around the woods and a generous portion of luck in timing.

But we're not looking at ordinary circumstances this spring in western Montana, where close to a half-million acres of national forest were scorched by wildfires last summer. One of the two types of morels found in this area, the black morel, is known as a "fire mushroom," often appearing abundantly in the spring amid the ashes of the previous summer's wildfires.

The other type of morel found in the area is the yellow or blond morel, which is typically found in cottonwood river-bottom areas.

The potential for a morel bonanza provided by the widespread fires is expected to launch an exodus of mushroom fanciers - motivated by gourmet appetites, fun and profit - tromping into the blackened areas of the forests.

How good will it be?

It depends on the weather, says Missoula mushroom guru Larry Evans, president of the Western Montana Mycological Association, who's worked for the Forest Service as a consultant on fungi resources.

The optimum weather scenario, according to Evans, would be a spring that alternates between a couple of days of warm, sunny weather, followed by a couple of days of intermittent rain. Morels require soil temperature to reach 45 degrees and plenty of moisture to thrive, he said.

The worst weather forecast for morels, he said, would be a spring that gets hot and sunny, and stays that way.

Nearly ideal conditions in the spring of 1995 yielded $3 million worth of morels from a single 1994 fire on the Payette National Forest of Idaho, Evans said. The commercial harvesting season there stretched out for 57 days as morels continued to sprout.

This year, because of the huge scale of the fires, Evans predicted, "it's going to be a multi-million-dollar morel year no matter how the weather goes."

Evans, who invested in a refrigerator truck last fall based on the promise of morels, will be among the many commercial buyers expected to vie for the fruits of the fires this spring.

"I'll be surprised if I don't have 10 crews out picking," he said. "My goal is to get local people involved a little bit more. The whole economy can benefit a little from this. In the past it's been out-of-state groups that have benefited."

Evans said he's seen the price for morels range from $4.25 to $10 a pound, which is usually three or four pints of mushrooms.

Forest Service officials in western Montana are bracing for an onslaught of commercial pickers and buyers from out-of-state. They worry about reports of "mushroom wars," involving violence and vandalism, that have broken out in other areas during a bumper mushroom crop.

Besides a law-enforcement alert, the Forest Service has responded to those concerns by instituting regulations for mushroom harvesting and camping in national forests of Montana and Idaho that are designed to maintain order, and frequently, to separate commercial and recreational gatherers.

Many of the regulations adopted by the Forest Service for mushroom harvesting throughout the Rocky Mountains this spring were developed by officials of the Kootenai National Forest in northwest Montana in 1995 after the big fire year of 1994.

A report to the agency by Evans identified the Kootenai Forest as a prime producer of mushrooms because of its rich, wind-blown soils that retain moisture longer than the granitic soils in most other forests in the region, according to the Kootenai Forest's David Deevy.

After 50,000 acres in the Kootenai burned in 1994, the agency designated 30,000 acres for commercial mushroom harvesting, the only place in Montana that had a commercial harvest.

As they prepared for the harvest in 1995, Deevy said, Kootenai officials heard "horror stories" about mushroom wars elsewhere.

Surprisingly, he said, "It just flat did not occur here."

About two-thirds of the 1,000 commercial-harvest permits sold in the Kootenai in 1995 were bought by local folks, According to Deevy. And about a third went to out-of-state pickers. Many of those were the same ones who come to the Kootenai every year to pick huckleberries commercially, Deevy said. There were very few problems.

Commercial morel harvesters need a special permit for any national forest, except the Flathead, and on all state lands in western Montana.

In the Lolo, Bitterroot, Beaverhead-Deerlodge, Kootenai and Helena national forests, the commercial permit prices are the same: seven days - $20, 14 days - $40, 21 days - $60, 30 days - $75, and season - $100. Because most of the fires there occurred on state or private lands, or in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area, the Flathead National Forest does not require commercial mushroom permits this year.

Prices of commercial permits for state lands are somewhat higher: seven days - $30, 14 days - $60, 21 days - $100, 30 days - $120, and season - $150. They are available only at Department of Natural Resources and Conservation offices.

In addition, each national forest has its own regulations regarding camping for commercial harvesters.

No doubt the commercial morel pickers will be out in force this spring. But there'll be plenty of us locals out there too, for whom the morels are mainly just an excuse to get outside and prowl around in the woods.

So the question, or questions, for all of us prospective novice morel seekers, are How do we proceed? Where to go? When? What to look for?

First, advises Evans, contact the Forest Service. Visit or call the district ranger station in the area you're planning an outing. Each national forest has its own regulations for recreational mushroom harvesting. (See associated story.) Most require a permit. But it's free. Ask for a map showing the areas of last summer's fires and designated commercial harvest areas. Some forests have fire maps; some don't. Some have more detailed maps than others. Several forests have brochures that explain all the regulations and include maps.

Besides regulations and fire locations, the officials at the district ranger stations will be able to tell you about the condition of forest roads in the vicinity of the fires, recommend routes, and alert you to hazards or area restrictions.

Most of the national forests have their mushroom brochures and fire maps available on their Web sites. Those who don't, plan to put them on the Web. All the Web sites of the national forests in the Northern Region of the Forest Service can be found at www.fs.fed.us/r1/.

The next recommendation by Evans is to check out the Web site of the Western Montana Mycological Association, based in Missoula, at www.fungaljungal.org. It includes a wealth of information about morels, including photos to help identify them and distinguish them from other mushrooms, research, fire ecology, tips about finding morels, the going commercial price, harvesting them, keeping them fresh, preserving them, cooking them, and ethical harvesting practices.

Ethical harvesting means leaving some morels to propagate more mushrooms for the future. It includes cutting or breaking the morel stalk above the ground to avoid disturbing the underground fungus. It means treading lightly in fragile burned areas.

Evans recommends morel pickers carry their mushrooms in a bucket with holes in it, to allow the mushrooms to breathe and not spoil, and so they can release their spores in the forest.

"Don't pick morels in the rain," he said. "You can't sell them. They're doomed. They get messy in a bucket or a bag. They turn into morel pudding."

If you see tiny green sprouts on morels, Evans said, "leave them."

"Those sprouts are other mycorrhizal plants," he added. "Although there's no research to back it up, it's my belief that this is one of the ways mycorrhizal relationships develop between mushrooms and trees and other plants, in which they exchange nutrients through their roots."

What does a good morel "place" look like?

"There are lots of things to look for," said Evans. "But I don't want to tell you too much or it won't be any fun."

South slopes, because they warm up earliest in the season, are usually the first places to find morels, according to Evans. And north slopes are the last places.

In addition, he said, elevation is important in looking for morels. Their emergence will typically progress from lower to higher elevation as the season progresses.

Science is lacking about soil types and other factors that favor morels, Evans said.

"You get a sense of a good place after a while," he said. "It's going to vary from site to site, forest to forest, soil type to soil type."

Generally, he said, you should look for mosaic burn areas, where fire burned lightly in patches.

"But I have found them in heavily burned areas," Evans added. "Everything I can tell you, I can tell you an exception to."

Morel seekers should look for five different species of mushrooms that are usually associated with morels, he said. Those "indicator" mushrooms, including false morels, are featured on the FungalJungal Web site.

One final word of advice for morel gatherers comes from Marcia Hogan, information officer for the Lolo National Forest and a morel aficionado:

"Mushroom picking is no tiptoe through the tulips," said Hogan. "It can be hard, hazardous work. Remember most fires are a mosaic of burned and unburned areas. So first, you have to find a burned area. Once inside such an area, you need to look for stump holes and snags that might fall, not just mushrooms. And when you're done, you'll look like a dirty firefighter, blackened with soot. So wear old clothes."

Reports are trickling in of the first morels starting to pop up. Hunter/gatherers of all persuasions won't be far behind.

Reporter Daryl Gadbow can be reached at 523-5264 or dgadbow@missoulian.com.

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