Once the snow melts on the burned-over expanses from Idaho’s colossal 1994 fires, morel mushrooms will start popping out of the blackened ground.
That innocent fact of nature places Forest Service and local law enforcement officers in, well, a morel dilemma.
They are preparing for what has taken on the trappings of the shoot-‘em-up gold rush camps of the 1800s: violent confrontations between commercial pickers over the pricey fungus.
“People get pretty possessive,” said Russ Newcomb, special agent for the Boise National Forest. “They get out in a field of mushrooms and somebody comes along. They get touchy.”
The golden mushrooms, which resemble a sea sponge on a stalk, are often found the year after a fire because they thrive on wood ash and any disturbance of the soil such as a bulldozer track, said Marcia WicklowHoward, a Boise State University mycologist.
They form underground in the fall after the fires, and then erupt the following spring when the snow melts and temperatures warm.
Dried morels are worth close to their weight in gold. They are in high demand by upscale restaurants and consumers worldwide and can earn gatherers $1,200 a day or more.
Morels are found in North Idaho. The Fourth of July Pass is prime territory.
Pickers searching for a windfall also will be watching the Boise and Payette forests where fires scorched hundreds of thousands of acres last summer. If previous harvests in eastern Oregon are any indication, Idaho authorities could be hardpressed to police them.
Many of the pickers are from Cambodia or Vietnam with little command of the English language, so miscommunication is common. An Asian picker was killed by competitors last year in Oregon.
“A lot of times we end up with fights, illegal weapons discharges.
The sheriff has to respond,” Newcomb said. “There could be abandoned cars, sanitation problems or fish and game violations.”
Valley County Sheriff Lewis Pratt said pickers come on the scene in buses or big vehicles set up for drying and “all the indigents and poor folks who need the work set up their tents to go picking.”
Some bring their own bodyguards, prostitutes and drugs, he said. Poaching is a threat. And shots have been fired over the heads of harvesters to intimidate them.
Wicklow-Howard said it is unfor tunate that the Idaho tradition of heading into the forests in the spring for mushrooms will now come head to head with heated commercial competition.
But the dry conditions that caused Idaho’s forest cauldron last year could make any morel crisis brief. The Idaho mushrooms would have a shorter life span than those on burn areas in humid Washington or Oregon. By the second year, the morel phenomenon should abate.