SpruceRoots Magazine - November, 1999
Falling Down on Mushrooms
by Brigid Cumming
Last month in the article - Stiking a balance between making a living and the living forest - I summarized the Islands mushroom industry in two paragraphs. Not long after the story came out, Brian Pearson called me and it didn't take him long to convince me I needed to do a follow-up article focussing just on mushrooms, clarifying some points and expanding others.
I had an interesting time with it. Mushroom biology is truly bizarre, an impression furthered by the words that describe it: hyfalnets, commensal relationships, and mycorrhizal.
Locally, the mushroom industry is approaching 20-years old. It's weather- and demand-dependent and totally unpredictable, but the buyers expect and enjoy that.
Skidegate Lake is the heart of the industry and just as vulnerable as that analogy suggests. There are Haida food fishery concerns; and public health, garbage and safety risks generated when up to 200 people camp in a small area. There are even rumours of violence; people getting protective and perhaps aggressive about others picking their patches. As well J.S. Jones, Weyerhaueser (MacMillan Bloedel) and Western Forest Products all have tenure in the Lake area.
Today, all these issues and the mushroom industry itself are beginning to be studied. People are talking, planning, holding workshops and slowly exploring alternatives. People are excited by the economic and employment potential for an annual forest 'intercrop' which could be available for 60 years of the often-cited 80-year rotation.
A few days after being interviewed, Brian Pearson called to tell me he'd gone to pick at the Lake and found active logging in one of his spots - J.S. Jones is taking out 48-year old second growth.
The following articles are an attempt to reflect further on what is going on in this industry as it comes into the light.
* photo - Some of the second-growth that has been felled on a mushroom patch.
The Biology of Mushrooms
Picking, Buying and Selling
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On the Islands the commercial mushroom harvest is in second-growth timber.
"Logging has made our mushroom industry," says mushroom buyer and picker Brian Pearson, "Or the burn (at Skidegate Lake)." But logging, second-growth is what is going to kill it. You don't get chanterelles, you don't get these types of mushrooms in virgin timber. You get the odd bit because there's always some ... but you don't get a commercial volume."
This makes the mushroom industry both dependent on and uneasily co-existent with logging since the logging ofsecond-growth eliminates a mushroom harvest until the next crop of trees is a couple of decades old. "I've always said 20 (years) and up," says Dwight Welwood, who has been picking and buying mushrooms in Port Clements since the early 1980s. "That works surprisingly well around here," he says, meaning central Graham Island, "because every year we get a couple of hundred hectares more [of productive mushroom territory.]"
Logging doesn't just instantlycreate a 20-year moratorium on mushroom picking in the logged area; it affects adjacent unlogged areas as well. Blow-down, increased light levels, changes in drainage and other more subtle factors have drastic effects. "We're seeing that right along Skidegate Lake where they did that right-of-way," says Pearson. "That was a very hot picking area and now there's hardly any mushrooms in that first few hundred metres. On Branch 30 where J.S. Jones logged, that was a huge patch. That whole corner where they logged there, that was a very, very hot spot back in '83."
Pearson is particularly concerned because Skidegate Lake is the heart of the Islands mushroom industry. "I would say 60-70% of the harvest comes out of Skidegate Lake, Mosquitoe Lake. This is the largest producing area of the islands. It always has been." Welwood agrees. "I'd say it's probably higher than that; I guarantee it's probably 70%." Welwood thinks one reason why Skidegate Lake is key to the local mushroom industry is because pickers concentrate their efforts there. He estimates up to 200 pickers can be working in and around Skidegate Lake in a bumper crop year; many from off-Island. This is in sharp contrast with the 40 or so pickers, almost all local residents, working Graham Island. He estimates having up to 70 pickers on weekends, but unless the logging industry is shut down during mushroom season, and people are supplementing their income, that's about it.
The annual tent-city springs up at Skidegate Lake because the area has become well-known provincially, it's astonishingly productive and produces top-quality mushrooms.
"For some reason Skidegate Lake has got something that's unique. Maybe it comes from the burn. It's a very mossy area. You can go harvest mushrooms behind Charlotte here and they're ugly. They're just not the same quality as what's coming out of that Lake," says Pearson.
"They don't ever have a bad year down there anymore," says Welwood. "Just that area around the Lake is magical." Pearson talks about impressive volumes, particularly during bumper years. Last year was a bumper year for chanterelles. "I don't quite have a handle on the figures," he says, "but I know there were 8,000 pounds a day coming in at the Lake during the peak of a couple of weeks. You're looking at 100,000 pounds of mushrooms coming out in a 2-week period out of one spot."
Pickers received $5.50 to $6.00 a pound for those 100,000 pounds of mushrooms; that's $550,000 to $600,000. Station buyers acting for generally off-Island agents received 50¢ a pound commission, or a further $50,000. The benefit to the local economy is obvious and what is particularly inviting is that mushrooms are an annual, if unpredictable, harvest.
This growing industry is creating a concern for both the Ministry of Forests and logging companies: How do you manage crown lands to the benefit of both loggers and mushroom pickers? And how do you include food gatherers as well as other Non-Timber Forest Products (NFTPs) into the equation.
"I've been attempting to elevate the profile of these issues and do some work on them for a couple of years now," says Greg Wiggins, Program Coordinator of the South Moresby Forest Replacement Account (SMFRA).
"These issues are becoming significant for us rather later than they have been for other parts of the south coast and parts of the interior." Towards that end SMFRA is funding two projects this year.
"One is NTFP economics," he says, "and that's an assessment of current circumstances here and the development of recommendations for economic development associated with NTFPs. The other one is mushroom productivity, focussing on chanterelles. It's centred down in the Skidegate Lake area."
"I think research is the key here," says Brian Eccles, Ministry of Forests District Recreation/Range Specialist.
"We've just got to know what values are at risk. It's very important that we move slowly and get everyone at the table." He is particularly concerned that mushroom pickers speak out; "we need to have the pickers support the process" he says.
Dave Trim, Division Planner for Weyerhaeuser (formerly MacMillan Bloedel's Queen Charlotte Division) points out that while NTFPs are mentioned in the Forest Practices Code, "there's no regulation, so there's no provision for any forest company to manage them." By contrast, he cites recreation values.
"We have to accommodate recreational use, but there's inventories and ways of classifying it and ways of responding to certain values." Weyerhaeuser has a cut-block in the Skidegate Lake area, but "we don't have any immediate plans to activate it," he says. "We have operation plans for this year and next year, and it's not included in those." In fact, "the approval letter for the last development plan included comments from the Ministry of Forests expressing some concerns about fitting the mushroom harvest together with the forest harvest. In the development plan we've just sent in, we said we would acquire some sort of expert opinion to indicate an acknowledgement of the value of the mushroom harvest and how the two could fit together."
Given the importance of the Skidegate Lake area to the local mushroom industry, is it possible Weyerhauser might never log their Skidegate Lake cut-block? "That's possible but unlikely," Trim explains. "Basically, the reason it's sitting there is second-growth logging is less attractive than it was previously. A change in the log market could mean a change in plans."
SpruceRoots Magazine - November, 1999