Avoiding mushroom mayhem
Morel, mushroom expert says government should step in

Richard Gleeson
Northern News Services

Yellowknife ( May 31/00) - Mushroom-picking could be a new and lucrative source of income for many Northerners, but it could also spawn the kind of chaos the high-priced fungi have brought to some southern communities.

That's the message of a report prepared by two Yellowknifers who played a central role in, and documented, last year's morel harvest in the Tibbitt Lake area.

Only 42 people -- 38 of them Northerners -- picked morels to sell, but even then tensions rose.

"The list of the reported incidents and complaints included accusations, smear campaigns, threats, abuse, assault, theft and no respect for the land, including waste left behind," noted the report, written by Joachim Obst and Walter Brown.

That sounds like a prelude to the serious crime that has plagued mushroom harvests in the United States and Canada.

Mushrooms and morels grow in their greatest numbers in areas ravaged by forest fires. When word gets out about a good mushroom crop on a particular burn, hundreds and sometimes thousands of pickers will descend on the area.

Last year, hundreds of out-of-town pickers went to Salmon Arm, B.C. to harvest a crop of morels that sprung from a forest fire the previous season. Property owners living in the area of the burn complained of the increased traffic and pickers harvesting on their land without permission.

In both B.C. and Oregon, disputes among pickers have led to violence and fatal shootings in both the western United States and British Columbia.

Mushroom picking is generally an unregulated business, most commonly dealt with in cash. The driving force is the lucrative Asian and European markets, where morels sold for up to $550 per kilogram last fall.

During a pilot project run by Obst and Brown, a total of $54,629 worth of morels picked on the Ingraham Trail last year were sold commercially. Obst said that's just the tip of the iceberg.

"I could see in the NWT you could have a $100- million market for morels alone," said the 20-year city resident.

When frictions rose last year, one out-of-town resident involved in the harvest threatened to bring 200 foreign pickers to the NWT for this year's harvest. The season runs from early June to mid-July.

Obst and Brown suggested commercial pickers and buyers working in the NWT be required to purchase a license similar to a fishing or hunting licence.

The licenses would be used to keep track of how many mushrooms are being bought and sold, where they are being picked and who is buying and selling. The territorial government is considering including mushrooms and morels in the NWT Wildlife Act, which is currently being revised.