National Public Radio had a story last week about mushroom foraging at Salt Point State Park in California, along the Sonoma coast north of San Francisco, entitled “Mushroom Foraging: When The Fun(gi) Hunt Gets Out Of Hand.”
California forbids collecting mushrooms in almost all state, regional, and local parks. Our national parks are also generally off-limits to mushroom hunters. For much of the year, when fungi are to be found in the large and mountainous National Forests, this is a manageable limitation.
However, in the late fall and winter months when the season has ended in the mountains, the nearby Pacific Ocean moderates temperatures along the West Coast, and frequent soaking winter rains produce heavy fruitings of many choice edible species. Since there is very little public land in the coastal zone of California that is open to mushroom foraging, the impact of the hobby is funneled into a much smaller area at the few remaining accessible locations such as Salt Point State Park.
Environmental Impact of Fungal Foraging
It is not made very clear in the story, but mushroom picking is not an inherently unsustainable use of our natural resources. By the time a fungal fruiting body is collected for the table, it has typically discharged much or all of its spore burden. There are even many who argue that fruiting increases when mushrooms are collected and carried around the forest, allowing their remaining spores to be more widely spread. A strong ethos has developed within the foraging community to use mesh bags or woven baskets that permit free dispersal of the spores.
While there are some specific practices such as raking of the forest floor that can be detrimental, the environmental impact of mushroom pickers in general is much the same as the same number of hikers, photographers, or bird watchers might be. Litter, fires, trampling of plants and soil, trail cutting, and the like are by no means unique to mushroom hunters. And no reasonable lover of wild mushrooms would object to bag limits, rake and shovel bans, commercial harvesting licenses or quotas, or other regulations to mitigate those particular ill effects of mushroom collecting that can be remedied without outlawing the practice entirely. Many of them are already in use in those National Forests that are targets of heavy fungi collecting.
The Tragedy of the Commons vs. the Tragedy of the No Commons
Some environmentalists consider the Salt Point phenomenon an example of the “Tragedy of the Commons“, when land that belongs to everyone is treated as if it belonged to no one, and over-utilized and damaged by individuals acting in their own self-interest. The environmental degradation described in the NPR story has even led to calls for closing all remaining California state parks to mushroom foraging, despite the fact that it would not be nearly so severe in any one area if the foragers were much more widely dispersed.
However, the well-known mycologist David Arora, author of Mushrooms Demystified, thinks that we should instead consider the Salt Point phenomenon as a “Tragedy of No Commons”. When we close off our public lands to sustainable consumptive use, and hold up preservation as a higher value than recreation — even in places where there is no remaining pristine old-growth ecosystem to preserve — we make criminals out of otherwise law-abiding citizens engaging in their longstanding cultural traditions, lose the opportunity for scientific management and stewardship of ethical mushroom hunting, and increase the environmental impact on the few places that remain.
Even worse, we foster a detached view of Nature and its bounty in our city-dwelling young people. Children who might otherwise have grown up picking mushrooms, and cherishing the forest that gave life to them, may instead come to see Nature as a hands-off museum or a private playground for wealthy Sierra Club types. People who would otherwise be friends and allies of the hard-core environmentalists are instead alienated and driven apart from them by these policies. In the insightful words of Grainger Hunt, a biologist whom Arora quotes in an interesting article on California boletes,
What are the consequences of raising a generation of people with no opportunity to forage? I believe that a child who grows up with the notion that nature is not to be touched soon develops a feeling of indifference, and indifference towards nature is the greatest of all threats to her.
Bans on mushroom foraging need to be revisited wherever they exist, whether in California, Arizona, or elsewhere. We are fortunate that the vast majority of suitable terrain in Arizona is open to mushroom foraging, and should work to keep it that way.