Features & Columns
Morel Mushroom Hunters blocked
in Sierra Nevada after Rim Fire
Josiah Slone eagerly awaits the day he can put morel mushrooms on the menu. Chef and owner of Sent Sovi, the top-dollar yet intimate French-California fusion restaurant that sits on Big Basin Way in Saratoga, Slone calls the springtime delicacy "smoky, meaty, yet refined" in texture and taste.
Morels don't cook up slimy like some mushrooms. Hollow on the inside, morels have a thick texture and nutty flavor. Best when stuffed with cheese and crabmeat, morels can be grilled over open flames, deep-fried or simply sauteed in a cast iron pan.
But Slone has no current plans to put morels on his menu this spring. Expensive and hard to come by, he plans to wait until the supply of the delicacy has increased and prices dropped. The irony in all of this is one of the biggest blooms of morels in living memory is now bursting from the ground in the Sierra Nevada, just west of Yosemite National Park. Due to a land closure that has turned political, however, nobody can get to them.
Roughly 400 square miles of woodland burned last summer in the devastating Rim Fire. The blaze was one of the largest in state history, consuming 257,000 acres of trees, mostly in the Stanislaus National Forest, and destroying scores of buildings. Officials say that dead trees with the potential to fall on roadways, trails and campgrounds pose too great a threat to allow public access. That leaves millions of pounds of morels—and millions of dollars to be made off the prized shrooms—stuck in the ground.
Slone doesn't believe the forest closure, which is expected to extend into next autumn, is necessary or particularly sensible.
"Going into the forest in general is dangerous," he says. "So, why not outlaw it all the time? Someone just fell off a cliff in Yosemite and had to be helicoptered out, but we allow rock-climbing. I don't think mushroom hunting can be much more dangerous than that."
Curt Haney, president of the Mycological Society of San Francisco and a morel-hunting fan—the difficulty in finding morels has led the picking process to being referred to as "hunting"—has a similar stance.
"It's dangerous any time you go in the woods," Haney says. "There are bears and mountain lions. So why not ban hiking all the time?"
Morels can grow almost anywhere—even out of concrete-layered sidewalks. But for reasons not entirely clear to scientists, they grow most prolifically from burned ground, where ash and charred wood have leached into the soil. Morel hunters covet recently charred forests for this reason.
Haney has been lobbying for access to the closed area for months with his club members and fellow mushroom aficionados. His group has written letters and made pleas to U.S. Forest Service officials and several prominent lawmakers—including U.S. senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Roseville) and the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors—but none, so far, have shown interest in exempting mushroom hunters from the closed area.
With trees ready to fall and heavy branches dangling by splinters, government officials say it's simply too dangerous.
"I've heard from a lot of morel hunters who are just dying to get into the forest up there," says Don Ferguson, spokesperson with the Forest Service. "They're saying it's one of the best places to hunt in years, and they might be right, but it's just not safe now."
The Forest Service is currently assessing the Stanislaus National Forest, locating all "hazard trees" near heavy-use roadways and planning their removal—a process that should begin in May, Ferguson says. The service is also launching a bigger-scale project—termed the Rim Fire Recovery Project—that aims to remove salvageable timber from 30,000 acres of the charred forest. But mushroom hunters, who have been antsy to explore the region for months, argue that wind and rain during the winter has probably knocked down most potentially dangerous loose branches, making the forest fairly safe for entry. They also say the federal agency should have done cleanup work sooner, before morel season.
"They've had six months since the fire to clear out the hazard trees, and they haven't done anything," says Robert Belt, a mushroom hunter from the foothills town of Sonora.
Even after hazard trees along high-use roads are removed in May, the region will remain closed to the public as a longer-term project begins to clear and restore the forest. The Rim Fire Recovery Project, Ferguson says, will assess some 30,000 acres of national forest land from which trees will be removed by commercial loggers. The project will aim to remove hazard trees lining low-use dirt roads, he adds, as well as salvageable timber deeper in the forest.
Funds from the logging will be used to restore the forest, which Ferguson says must be cleared before it can be replanted. Proceeds from the tree removal will support reforestation of the area.
"If we can get a buck back for the wood, that can really help us get through this," Ferguson says.
Todd Spanier, a peninsula-based commercial mushroom supplier, says his company, King of Mushrooms, is coming up short on supplies for customers—especially morels.
"I have people calling me from throughout Europe wanting dried morels, and I'm trying to decide how to deliver," Spanier says.
The state's entire economy, he adds, is taking a hit. Spanier has estimated that the closed portion of the Rim Fire zone contains $23 million worth of morels. That, he says, is based on a recent $30 per pound wholesale value. In a good year, he adds, the California morel crop, from forest picker to the chef's plate, can generate $50 to $75 million in tax revenue.
Spanier warns that businesses in small communities near the scorched earth will suffer if throngs of mushroom hunters, including the nomadic groups of commercial hunters that roam the Northwest through the year harvesting fungi, are not allowed to use the area.
"You have cafes and restaurants and lodging where all these mushroom hunters would be going if they were allowed in," Spanier says. "A lot of these places have been really hurt already by the fire closure."
But not all is lost for morel hunters. Already, several Stanislaus National Forest campgrounds, dusty with soot and ash, have been reopened.
"Morel hunters are welcomed to hunt mushrooms around these sites," Ferguson says. "It's a big area, though, and you can go anywhere you want in the forest, but we are enforcing the laws and we have officers out there watching that people stay in the open areas. We're going to do our best to protect people from the hazards out there."
Rebecca Garcia, spokesperson for the Stanislaus National Forest, says that other areas that burned last summer are currently open to the public.
"There are a lot of burns that we've already opened, and there will be plenty of morels growing there," Garcia assures.
The penalty for entering the off-limits part of the forest is up to $5,000 and six months behind bars. So far, Ferguson says, most violators have only received warnings.
Morels grow most prolifically in a burn zone in the spring immediately following a forest fire, but second-year morel blooms, Haney says, can also produce even more mushrooms.
"The area will be productive next year, too," he says. "We'll still get some morels."