Morel mushroom hunters banned from prime multimillion-dollar bounty near Rim fire site

by Alastair Bland

One of the largest wildfires in state history swept the western Sierra Nevada last summer. The blaze burned for two months, devoured 257,000 acres of forest and destroyed at least 11 homes.

The Rim fire also primed the region for a potentially massive uprising of morel mushrooms. These finger-sized, wrinkly headed delicacies grow in the springtime, and they sprout most prolifically in regions where fires have burned the previous summer. Mushroom hunters know this and, every April, they swarm into burned woodlands, baskets in hand, as they reap the bounty that rises from the ashes.

But this spring, there will be no such foraging bonanza in the Stanislaus National Forest, some three hours southeast of Sacramento. The U.S. Forest Service has closed the Rim fire zone to the public, and morels hunters are in dismay.

Forest Service officials are naming safety as the reason for the closure. Dead, burned trees, they say, are liable to drop branches and pine cones onto foragers and other hikers. Even those accessing the area by vehicle are at risk of being crushed by falling trees, they claim.

“Hazardous trees are lining the roadways,” said Rebecca Garcia, public affairs officer with the Stanislaus National Forest.

Other large areas that experienced forest fires last summer have been opened to the public—such as the large American fire area in the Tahoe National Forest. But Garcia explained that the Rim fire zone has remained closed because of the especially high temperatures at which this particular fire burned. The extreme heat left each standing tree at a higher-than-usual risk of falling and injuring hikers and drivers, according to Garcia.

Mushroom hunters are not convinced.

“We’ve hunted morels in areas identical to the Rim fire, where the burn was just as hot, and we’ve never had problems,” said Curt Haney, president of the Mycological Society of San Francisco.

Also baffling to mushroom hunters is the fact that 77,000 acres burned by the Rim fire within Yosemite National Park were opened to the public several weeks ago.

“So if it’s safe there, why not outside the park?” Haney said.

Garcia said the Forest Service is now conducting an assessment of the Rim fire area in order to locate all the trees at risk of falling onto roadways. The review will be finished in May.

“That will be the first step before we can even think about opening the area up to the public,” Garcia said.

But the Forest Service has already allowed a logging company—Sierra Pacific Industries—to use closed roads to access privately owned pockets of land within the burn zone. Garcia said plans are underway to allow logging companies to salvage burned trees from the Stanislaus National Forest, too.

How real the dangers of hiking in burned forests are is a matter of ongoing debate. Donald Hughes, a mushroom-hunting enthusiast in Oakland, says he has hunted morels in a dozen or more fresh burn zones. One gets covered in soot and ash, he said.

“But I’ve never heard of anyone getting hurt,” Hughes said.

Haney, in fact, claims it has never happened. In an April 3 letter to Susan Skalski, the forest supervisor of the Stanislaus National Forest, Haney wrote, “There is no reported case of any member of the general public sustaining an injury while hiking or pursuing recreational activities in a burn zone, whether or not related to mycological activities.” 

Anyway, even if the forest was dangerous in the weeks after the fire ended in October, wind and rain have probably caused most loose branches and brittle trees to fall by now, making the area safe for hiking, according to Robert Belt, a Sonora resident and morel hunter.

“If [those branches and trees] didn’t come down this winter, they aren’t coming down now,” Belt said.

Morels are among the most valued of edible mushrooms. A variety of morel species occur worldwide, with nations in Europe especially prizing the earthy-tasting, meaty-textured fungus. Across the United States, annual morel festivals and group collecting outings reflect the huge popularity of this particular mushroom, which may retail for more than $40 per pound.

Josh Nelson, owner of Selland Family Restaurants in Sacramento, says his favorite method of cooking morels is to grill them over an open flame. They do well in veggie sautés, too, and on pizzas.

“They’re really a versatile mushroom, with a great nutty flavor,” he said.

Morels do grow in unburned areas—collectors call them “naturals”—including in the Sierra Nevadas just east of Sacramento. But these morels don’t sprout anywhere near as abundantly as they do in burned forests.

Todd Spanier, a commercial mushroom collector and owner of the wholesale business, King of Mushrooms, says a single acre of forest burned the year prior will produce, on average, about 5 pounds of springtime morels. As of April 15, the wholesale price for morels was $30 per pound, according to Spanier.

“There should be about $23 million, wholesale, of morels in that [closed portion of the] burn,” he said.

Nelson, who was recently hunting morels in the Sierras, says the closure of the Rim Fire zone is hardly a disaster for morel hunters. 

“There are other nearby options,” he said. “There are a few burns off of [highways] 80 and 50 that are accessible, and they should be pretty productive for a couple of years.”

Officials are standing by the closure—and threatening intruders with $5,000 fines and up to six months in jail—yet some locals have reportedly skirted the outer edges of the closed area. According to their reports, woodcutters are at work along area roadways and near campgrounds—and the morels are erupting in huge numbers.

Hughes, like many others, is already mourning the loss.

“It’s really sad to know that so many morels will just rot in the ground out there,” he said.

Photo courtesy of Josh Nelson.

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