DARBY, Mont. - "It's like an Easter egg hunt for adults," says Hannah Hill. "It's exciting when you're in the mother lode patch and you know you can pick it for days. And you're paid to walk in the woods all day."

Hill is a wholesale mushroom buyer from Oregon, and she's enthusiastically describing the booming morel harvest on the nearly 900,000 acres of Montana forests that were singed by wildfire last summer.

The 'shroom boom started in late April, when periodic snow and rain, fluctuating with warm temperatures, sent the groove-capped, hollow fungi poking their heads up through the ashes at lower elevations. With plenty of light, no competition from other plants, and a smorgasbord of nutrients in the ash, the morels flourished. And the pickers flocked.

Since late April, the Forest Service has sold about 2,500 commercial mushroom-picking permits on four national forests in western Montana. And for every commercial picker who plunks down $20 for a seven-day permit, there's a local Montanan picking up a personal-use permit for free - increasing the army of pickers to more than 5,000.

Hill, who set up her operation in the small logging town of Darby, at the southern end of the Bitterroot Valley, has been buying 500 to 1,500 pounds of mushrooms every day and shipping them to chefs around the country. Barbara Shook, the clerk at the Darby Ranger District who is in charge of writing permits, estimates there are about 15 buyers scattered around the Bitterroot Forest. Some have reported purchasing up to 4,000 pounds of morels in one evening. Throughout the season, the going price has ranged from $2.50 to $5 per pound paid to pickers.

International flavor

Pickers come from as far away as New York and Texas, "but the majority are from Washington and Oregon," Shook says. When asked where they come from, many of the migrant pickers answer with the name of the foreign country they were born in, rather than the name of the American town where they now reside. To keep clear communication with the pickers, the Ninemile Ranger District hired a camp liaison officer who spoke Laotian, Cambodian and Spanish.

On a good day, Bao Chanthavy of Anchorage, Alaska, makes about $150 picking morels. Chanthavy, who was born in Cambodia, quit his job at a seafood-processing plant in Anchorage to join the early wave of pickers at Ninemile. A surprise May storm that dumped 10 inches of snow on western Montana didn't deter him. "I can take it," he said. "After all, I'm from Alaska."

Xaysana Sihanantharath, 23, an unemployed lumber mill worker from Raymond, Wash., set up camp in the quiet Ninemile forests with his wife and her parents, plus some family friends who have followed the mushrooms for several years. After work, Laotian music with a disco beat frequently blares from a boom box.

"It's nice and easy," says Sihanantharath, who migrated to the United States in 1989 with his family. "You work at your own pace. It's life in the woods." On a good day, Sihanantharath and his wife make about $250.

Hannah Hill started her mushroom career as a picker in 1994, wary of becoming the stereotype of mushroom hunters painted by the public - "one of the toothless scum, driving around in a beater rig full of dogs," she says. "Now, you see, I do drive a beater rig, and I've got the dogs."

Hill also has all her teeth, as do most pickers, and a pretty good business, to which banks readily loan money. "When I decided to become a buyer in 1995, I gave myself four years, like I would a college education," she says. "I told myself that if I can't make money by then, I'll go back to school. Now, we are incorporated, business is growing every year, and we own two refrigerator trucks and three dryers."

Each year, Hill follows the mushroom harvest. The route usually leads to matsutake mushrooms in Oregon in September, chanterelles in Washington in November, matsutakes in Northern California in December, and chanterelles, hedgehogs and yellow-foot mushrooms in California throughout the rest of the winter. By early spring, the matsutakes are popping up in Southern California.

In Montana, the morel-picking season may last through the summer. By early summer, most buyers and pickers had deserted the Lolo Forest to travel 50 miles south of Missoula into the higher elevations of the Bitterroot and Beaverhead-Deerlodge national forests.

"I thought by now it would be tapering off, but folks are still finding quite a few mushrooms at the 6,000-foot level," says Jeff Amoss, resource staff officer on the Bitterroot.

Some buyers predict pickers will continue harvesting throughout August.

A happy crowd

In years past, mushroom harvesting on national forests has garnered headlines with occasional reports of violence involving pickers staking out their territory in forests in California and the Northwest. But law-enforcement officers on the Lolo and Bitterroot forests this year have reported no major complaints from, or about, pickers this year.

"All in all, it's been very good out there," says Shook, who has talked to more than 1,350 pickers at her post in a registration trailer outside the Darby Ranger Station. "Asians, Hispanics and Anglos are all getting along, although sometimes it gets a little loud in the camps at night. They are really good people."

That doesn't mean that the morel harvest hasn't caused problems for Forest Service officials. On top of tying up the administrative help at ranger districts with the permitting process, some pickers have littered the forests. "I could have made more money picking up aluminum cans than picking mushrooms," says Lolo forester Ray Bryant, who was surveying potential timber sales in burned areas in Ninemile this spring.

The camps may also have a detrimental effect on the local bear population. "Bears have been wreaking havoc, tearing open trash bags at the camps," says Ken Britton, assistant resource officer for the Ninemile District. "There's always a chance the bears will continue that behavior after the campers pull up stakes." If the bears move down into the Ninemile Valley and cause trouble around homes, they could be killed by state wildlife officers, he says.

In early July, officials were forced to kill the first grizzly bear documented in the Ninemile Valley in 30 years because the young male had developed a yen for human garbage. Officials don't know if he was one of the bears raiding the pickers' camps.

Still, the rewards of the harvest reach far beyond the swelling bank accounts of the pickers. In Missoula, Ray Risho, head chef and owner of Perugia restaurant, has been offering a daily special of baked morels stuffed with leeks, shallots, garlic, roasted pine nuts, currants, fresh Italian sausage and a little breading.

Says Risho, "People just order the morels with everything."

 

Mark Matthews writes from Missoula, Montana.

YOU CAN CONTACT ...

  • Darby Ranger District, 406/821-3913;
  • Bitterroot National Forest, 406/363-7117.

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Mark Matthews