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.


The 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 steel.





"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.


Summers, when he isn't welding, also might be driving the gravel roads on "the rez," searching for coneflower.





"Half the game, I'd say, is finding it," Summers says. "The other half is digging it."


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 Point.


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.


The 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 mushroom season.


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 limits.





"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 it.





"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 winter days.





"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.





"We're only hopeful that (the plant) will come back," says Curley Youpee, the tribe's 48-year-old director of cultural resources. "It's a gold-rush mentality.





"I tell 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 day.


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 Representatives.


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 flower.





"What is she doing introducing this law?" asks Marion Montclair, a 42-year-old flower digger. "The white people already stole our land, right?"





Echinacea goes global


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 context.





"When it's taken away, it's no longer in the culture," Youpee says.


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 wild plant.


Youpee isn't considering cultivating the plant on the reservation.





"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 day?





Hope on the forest floor


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.


Kooskia, 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 promised:





"This is a heavy-duty industry. It's worldwide "





"Kooskia has got huge potential "





"This is a sleeping giant here "





"What 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 bust.


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 morel mushrooms.


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 $80.


Schnepf pauses, grins, and says: "$150."


A murmur rumbles through the room.


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.


In 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 plants.


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.


In a 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 sufficed.





"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 weeds.





"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 be great.





"In Japan, (beargrass) sells for $1 a blade," Lee says, and, "there's probably 100 blades in every clump."





But can it support communities?


As traditional 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 cog."


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 Guatemala.





"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 a day."


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 $8.


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 understood


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.





"That would 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 taxol.





"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 quantities."


But without more research on species with a new-found commercial popularity, land managers say they cannot make sound policy.





"(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 exists


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."


Some 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 camps.





"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 plants.





"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 assistant editor.





You can contact ...


* Nan Vance, Forest Sciences Laboratory, 3200 SW Jefferson Way, Corvallis, OR 97331 (541/750-7302);


* 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), e-mail: jeffctr@internetcds.com.