With a few lengths of steel and the blue flame of a welding torch, Robert Summers pieces together the tools of a new trade in the West. Parts come from a plumbing supply store 60 miles away in Sidney, Mont., or were scavenged from the truck frames that litter the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, in a forgotten corner of Montana near Saskatchewan and North Dakota.
sturdy tool looks like a child's pogo stick; it comes with a
handlebar and footpegs made of one-inch pipe. But where the springy
foot would be - the working end - Summers welds a slender,
foot-long blade of scavenged
"Then just sharpen it
to a point like a spear," he says. "Sometimes the ground is pretty
hard and it pays to have the blade sharp and narrow."
Summers makes these 25-pound contraptions for
himself and for the growing corps of people on the reservation who
dig the woody root of the purple coneflower. It's a medicinal plant
often known by its Latin name, Echinacea angustafolia, and these
days it's worth money. Everyone from baby boomers to New Agers has
discovered that echinacea helps cure colds - although the
scientific tests aren't in yet.
Indians in dusty
sedans and pickups from across the reservation show up at Summers'
door in Poplar, Mont., (pop. 920) with $45 in crumpled bills for
every digger they take with them. They back out of Summers'
driveway and steer toward the vast rolling shortgrass prairie just
past the last house on his street.
he isn't welding, also might be driving the gravel roads on "the
rez," searching for
"Half the game,
I'd say, is finding it," Summers says. "The other half is digging
Where he sees a patch of the flowers,
Summers parks, tosses a sturdy satchel stitched from old Levi's
over his shoulder and lugs his digger across the prairie. When
commercial digging started a handful of years ago, he and others
took only the larger roots. Now, as patches are combed a second and
third time, they gather the more slender roots. At day's end,
diggers sell their take, perhaps 20 pounds or more, for $8 a pound
to buyers in small towns such as Brockton and Wolf
The coneflower is as characteristic of
the area as the prairie dog, and in July its purple blooms are as
common. It grows amid yucca and needle-and-thread grass on dry
prairies, and its medicine was once a mainstay of native people. On
the Fort Peck, its value on the open market was discovered in the
mid-1990s; now it's a free-for-all on the reservation and across
eastern Montana and western North Dakota.
boom on the West's Indian and public lands isn't limited to the
purple coneflower. The West's natural pharmacies have been
discovered, and from bouquets of lush plants destined for European
flower shops, to bushels of gourmet mushrooms, a new economy is
emerging. It has come to prominence mostly in the Northwest, where
thousands of gatherers descend on the forest for a multitude of
natural products. Corps of mostly Hispanic "brush pickers' gather
bunches of shrubby salal branches - valued for their "perfect leaf'
- and are paid close to a dollar a pound. Leaves from these plants
may end up garnishing a fillet of salmon in a swanky restaurant. In
the fall, thousands of mushroom pickers - many of them immigrants
from Laos or Cambodia - fill camps during the fall matsutake
Like other extractive pursuits
in the West, however, this new industry is not always harmless. On
the Mount Hood National Forest, a delicate area known as Old Maid
Flats was so well trampled by commercial mushroom pickers that
agency staffers declared it off
"You have to make sure
it's not a form of mining," says Regna Merritt of the Oregon
Natural Resources Coalition.
An industry digs in on the prairie
At Fort Peck
these days, where one-third of the people live below the poverty
level, coneflower earnings make up a significant part of some
families' income, and whether it's spent on school clothes or
12-packs, everybody seems to like the new cash.
Summers says it's a boon for him and his wife, a schoolteacher,
though he admits there is a downside: The plant's survival is in
question, and even tribal members most concerned about the flower
feel powerless to save
"Around here, it's pretty
well dug out," Summers says.
Some plants will
grow back from root fragments left deep beneath the prairie sod, as
diggers are quick to point out.
But it takes
four years for those roots to grow as large as they once were, and
this regrowth alone may not save the plant, says Kelly Kindscher, a
University of Kansas botanist and author of Medicinal Wild Plants
of the Prairie. And modern gatherers hunt the plant almost
year-round - bundling up against the cold to seek out coneflower
patches on south-facing slopes where snow might melt on sunny
"Diggers go after
the larger plants," Kindscher says. "Once through is not the worst
thing. What becomes a problem is repeated harvest. Then you've
wiped out the seed base. If you're counting on just the root
resprouts to support the population, that's pretty grim."
Kindscher adds that the scientific community is
short on specifics: "We really don't know at all."
Nor do traditionalists at Fort Peck know how to
slow the harvest.
hopeful that (the plant) will come back," says Curley Youpee, the
tribe's 48-year-old director of cultural resources. "It's a
them that I wished they wouldn't do that," he says. "One of them
said, "Well, I need some tires for the car." "
Youpee doesn't argue. "When you look at (preserving) tradition and
people that may be hungry," he asks, "what is more important?"
Youpee has put up posters around the reservation, trying to teach
people about the plant's traditional value in Plains Indian culture
and alerting tribal members that they're being exploited by local
buyers. Urban boutiques, for example, charge more than $100 for a
pound of coneflower root.
Tribal land managers
have tacked flimsy paper signs to fence posts across the
reservation, asking pickers to cover up the holes they have dug,
but the echinacea hunt continues.
The lure of
money drives the new pursuit: Last summer, a company called
Medicine Man Botanicals of Fort Peck, Mont., paid out $1.1 million
to coneflower diggers. The company buys as much as 1,200 pounds a
Last year, the Three Affiliated Tribes of
the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in western North Dakota banned
the collection of the coneflower on the reservation after digging
became more intensive than the land could bear.
Youpee is part of a new statewide group of herbalists and plant
lovers called Friends of Echinacea. The group helped craft a bill
banning the collection of the flower on state lands off the
reservation. The legislation has passed the Montana Senate, but it
awaits a spring vote in the House of
The bill's sponsor, State Sen.
Linda Nelson, D, from the nearby town of Medicine Lake, has drawn
fire from some tribal members who fear they might eventually lose
their right to collect the
"What is she doing
introducing this law?" asks Marion Montclair, a 42-year-old flower
digger. "The white people already stole our land, right?"
After buyers on the Northern Plains
collect the coneflowers, they're sent for processing, and for
distribution to health-food stores and suburban supermarkets. Sold
as capsules packaged in brown plastic pill bottles, echinacea is
transformed into one of the latest over-the-counter "miracle"
cures, and stripped of any Indian
"When it's taken
away, it's no longer in the culture," Youpee
In 1997, Americans spent $80 million on
echinacea, and these days it ranks as one of the nation's most
popular herbal remedies. Some farmers have begun to cultivate the
plant - harvesting every third year - but "wildcrafting," or
gathering from the wild, continues to thrive.
Some hope that increasing the cultivated production and convincing
consumers to steer clear of wildcrafted echinacea will save the
Youpee isn't considering cultivating
the plant on the
"That's going to
take seed money and where do you find that money?" he asks. And
with such a valuable crop planted over so many acres, Youpee adds,
how do you prevent locals desperate for money from stealing the
crop in the night and cashing it in the next
Hope on the forest
Hundreds of miles to the west in rural
Idaho, a group of local residents has gathered to learn about
turning native plants into a local industry. People such as Alvin
McCoy, an occasional mushroom picker, have heard that city-dwellers
will pay top-dollar for the plants and mushrooms that grow in the
forested mountains. He is one of more than 100 people who showed up
on a spring Saturday morning at the town's opera house, upstairs
from the hardware store. Each has paid $5 to hear how there's money
to be made where once there was none.
Idaho, is in the heart of what was once timber country. But
public-land timber sales have declined in recent years, and this
town of 700, tucked into a steep valley where the South and Middle
forks of the Clearwater River meet, is feeling the pinch. In a
search for something else, boosters in the town have turned to what
grows beneath the trees.
Above the sounds of a
squeaky wooden floor, Nan Vance tells the audience exactly what the
town's economic development committee
"This is a
heavy-duty industry. It's worldwide
"Kooskia has got huge
"This is a
sleeping giant here "
you've got to do is market the Idaho thing
"This definitely could be
"the little town that could." "
Vance is a plant
physiologist at a Forest Service research station in Corvallis,
Ore., and a self-appointed champion of what's commonly called the
"special forest products' industry. She says she is trying to
simultaneously boost the industry and make it sustainable, so that
unlike the local timber industry, it doesn't boom and
Another speaker, Chris Schnepf, an
extension forester from the University of Idaho, adds to the
message. He tells the group that in 1989, hundreds of folks just
like them collected leaves of beargrass on the west side of Oregon
and Washington and earned a collective $11.5 million. What's more,
he says, in 1992, Northwest buyers paid harvesters $5.2 million for
A slide projector clicks and a
photo of a plump matsutake mushroom flashes onto the screen above.
With all eyes in the room trained on the bulbous white fungi,
Schnepf asks what people here think it might sell for in a big city
market. Someone says $35; and another guesses
Schnepf pauses, grins, and says: "$150."
A murmur rumbles through the
Schnepf spreads this message in gloomy
Idaho forest towns that yearn for new jobs and more money. His
examples are real, but they come from the Pacific Coast, and only
some translate to the Northern Rockies. The matsutake doesn't
appear in this part of Idaho, and morels only pop up through the
damp duff of the forest floor in some years. While beargrass is
abundant in Idaho and Montana, it's also common in coastal mountain
ranges - the region that supplies the floral market. There's
another problem: Lucrative markets exist several hundred miles away
on the coast. What works elsewhere might not apply to Idaho.
Schnepf admits there may be more money in flipping burgers, but he
adds that there is hope for the ambitious.
northwest Montana, a business called Bighorn Botanicals has taken
root by selling bulk herbs and its own product line of herbal
tinctures. Founded by Russ Willis, a Noxon, Mont., hunting
outfitter, the business hires crews of college students and
retirees to scour the forest for the weedy St. John's Wort, the
needles of the Pacific yew tree and other
But even if a plant is bought and sold
on the open market, Willis warns, collecting it may not be
profitable. One summer, his crews collected blades of beargrass,
only to find that buyers preferred sources found on the lush
coastal ranges, where it grows taller.
perfect scenario, collecting alternative forest products could mean
that out-of-work loggers could forget about cutting trees and start
a new economic life, combing the forest floor. Yet a look around at
the audience doesn't reveal any loggers, and many in the room tell
me they're newcomers from the more populated West Coast. Now
they're wondering how they're ever going to make a living in this
remote and beautiful valley where jobs are scarce. Kooskia's roots
are in timber, and that reliance has had to change. A new-age
retreat center has gone up in the forest outside of town, and
bed-and-breakfast lodgings offer deluxe accommodations where
roadside motels had always
"I think (special
forest products) are going to be very important," says Joy Lee.
"We're just going to have to have something else."
In this conservative timber town, that's a new
idea. Lee is the wife of a logger and a leader in the Kooskia
Revitalization Committee, a group that will promote just about
anything to fill empty storefronts - even collecting what locals
have always considered
"I guess people didn't
realize," Lee says, "there was something out there but trees."
But cashing in, she figures, will take
marketing, something "nobody's heard of." Kooskia's version is
rural: If you've got something to sell, a sign hung from a country
mailbox is ample advertising. If you market in Japan, however,
marketing has got to get sophisticated. She thinks the rewards can
(beargrass) sells for $1 a blade," Lee says, and, "there's probably
100 blades in every clump."
But can it support communities?
economies based on logging continue to decline, the collection of
medicinal herbs and mushrooms is helping some small towns in the
lush Northwest diversify their economies. But can a special forest
product ever fill logging's economic niche?
Keith Blatner, a Washington State University forestry professor,
says no. "It is not a panacea. It's still trivial compared to the
timber industry today." But, he adds, "It is a small but important
Beargrass, in fact, has been a
well-established business in the Northwest since the 1930s. In the
coastal ranges of Washington and Oregon, local companies pack
bundles of this lush vegetation into waxed cardboard boxes and
transport them to flower shops in Western Europe. These days,
brushpickers are recent Hispanic immigrants such as Julio Hernandez
of Shelton, Wash., who came to the Northwest from
"You can make as
much money as you want to," the 21-year-old Hernandez says. "You
(don't) need to speak English. You (don't) have to fill out any
applications. If you work really hard, you can make more than $100
Plump huckleberries fetch $20 a gallon
in the Northern Rockies, though the crown jewel of the industry is
the matsutake mushroom: Pickers in the Cascade Range of the
Northwest, many of whom come from Southeast Asian immigrant
communities on the coast, can collect $60 a pound for young, plump
button mushrooms, though prices also drop as low as
Taken together, the business in floral
greens, medicinal plants and mushrooms in Washington, Oregon and
Idaho was worth almost $107 million 1994, according to research by
Blatner at WSU.
The change in perception and
economic worth in just a few years has been startling: "Up until
the late "80s, most of these plants that were harvested out here
were considered, at best, weeds," says James Freed, a Washington
State University forestry professor. "We would burn them off or
spray them or do anything we could to control them. The main bottom
line was we wanted to enhance timber."
Underground and not
Yet even in the lush Northwest,
harvesting native plants has consequences that are not yet
understood. Much business is conducted on the sly and few records
are kept, so little is known about how many plants are collected.
The Clearwater National Forest in Idaho is trying to learn about
the huckleberry harvest, for instance, but the Nez Perce Tribe will
not report how many pounds its members collect on traditional fall
berry-picking outings. The tribe fears the Forest Service will try
to limit its huckleberry take - a resource the tribe says is
guaranteed by treaties.
Another open question
is whether enough plants are left over for wildlife. In Montana,
native huckleberries turned into jam and other products brought in
$1.5 million in 1996, and the commercial demand is rising.
Meanwhile, grizzly bears who need huckleberries to fatten up for
winter get what's left.
Don Minore, a retired
Forest Service botanist in Oregon, says what's happening in the
Northwest's national forests is as odd as this scenario: Imagine,
he says, logging Douglas-fir when everything about the trees is a
mystery - how old they are, the number of trees in a particular
forest, how many trees are being logged and how long it will take
them to grow back.
be similar to the way many of these plants are harvested," he says.
"We're concerned about wholesale harvesting in the West when we
don't know much about it. It's sort of like investing in a sawmill
if you don't know how much there is to cut."
When scientists discovered that taxol - a compound found in the
bark of the Pacific yew - had the power to cure some forms of
cancer, the market for an otherwise unknown shrubby tree with
next-to-no commercial value suddenly skyrocketed. The Forest
Service allowed massive logging of the Pacific yew without
calculating how many groves could be safely logged off. The bark
was stripped off the cut trees and shipped to pharmaceutical giant
Bristol-Meyers Squibb. The rush on yew bark lasted from 1991 to
1994, when scientists began synthesizing
"That was very scary,"
Minore says. "They were cutting so much faster than they were
regenerating. The Forest Service was very concerned about this at
one time. There are many species like that that are either
slow-growing or rare that must not be harvested in large
But without more research on
species with a new-found commercial popularity, land managers say
they cannot make sound
"(The Forest Service
managers) actually have to make educated guesses about how much can
be harvested," Minore says. "Timber can be quite precisely
inventoried using aerial surveys and ground surveys. Something like
huckleberries or mushrooms will not show up on an aerial survey."
A sustainable potential
Still, botanist Minore supports the
harvesting and selling of mushrooms, berries and the like -
provided it doesn't go to extremes.
In the best
scenario, he says, profits would extend over many years and the
gathering of pine boughs and mushrooms could be as valuable as
logging. "You don't have to wait 60 years to cut boughs, you can go
back every year or every other year."
national forests now sell permits for the collection of mushrooms.
In 1997, the Winema National Forest in Oregon brought in more than
$267,000 in mushroom permit sales. That sounds high, until you
compare it to $11.6 million collected in timber sales the same
year. And in 1997, during a meager mushroom season, the forest
earned only $138,000 in permits. Proceeds from sales of mushroom
permits return to the Forest Service general fund, and none are
promised for mushroom research, regulating the harvest or
controlling the sometimes rowdy and dangerous mushroom-picker
"It's just something
else that's been thrown on top of an already constrained budget,"
says Blatner, the WSU forestry professor.
Special forest-products budgets don't yet exist in the Forest
Service. The task of monitoring the industry and issuing permits
often falls on archaeologists or others with little training in the
area, because the agency can't afford specialists. The Forest
Service still depends on timber-sale revenues to support special
forest product budgets and as timber harvests have declined,
there's less money to study mushrooms and herbal
"This is a grassroots
kind of phenomenon. The top-level management doesn't understand
it," Vance says. "We just don't have the knowledge. The forestry
school produces people who know how to yard and pull out timber.
That's why this has been invisible for so long."
Dustin Solberg is an HCN
* Nan Vance, Forest Sciences
Laboratory, 3200 SW Jefferson Way, Corvallis, OR 97331
* Friends of Echinacea, c/o
Robyn Klein, Sweetgrass School of Herbalism, 6101 Shadow Circle
Dr., Bozeman, MT 59715;
* Alliance of Forest
Workers and Harvesters, c/o Jefferson Center for Education and
Research, P.O. Box 279, Wolf Creek, OR 97497 (541/955-9705),