By Mary Papenfuss
GROVELAND Calif. (Reuters) - Smugglers in northern California’s fire-ravaged Stanislaus National Forest are sneaking out pricey contraband - not marijuana this time, but a favorite delicacy of foodies: the luscious morel mushroom.
Despite a record “flush,” or bloom, of the tasty, wild fungi, mushroom hunters are banned from the forest because officials believe that scorched, unstable tree trunks, eroded soil and logging operations after last August’s massive Rim Fire have made the area too dangerous.
That means as much as $40 million in a bumper crop of morels — ironically sparked by the same fire that is blocking hunters — is rotting in the woods west of Yosemite Park.
“It’s a shame to let those morels go to waste,” said Curt Haney, president of the San Francisco Mycological Association, who doesn’t believe conditions are any more dangerous than in other, less productive, burn areas where gatherers have access.
As firefighters in Stanislaus battled last summer's 400-square-mile Rim Fire, the third largest in California history, mushroom hunters were “salivating” in anticipation of the morels in the fire’s wake, said Haney.
Soil nutrients from burned and rotting trees are a perfect medium for morels, says U.S. forester Marty Gmelin.
Attempts to cultivate morels are rarely successful, making them a world-class delicacy. The season in northern California is expected to finish around the end of June.
While mushroom hunters may be willing to sign safety waivers for access, the Stanislaus National Forest spokeswoman Rebecca Garcia says it “doesn’t absolve the U.S. Forest Service of liability. We can’t allow the public in risky areas.”
Todd Spanier, founder of King of Mushrooms, the largest commercial distributor of wild mushrooms in the San Francisco Bay Area, believes banning the hunt may have cost the local economy as much as $160 million in lost revenue from gatherers traveling from other states and countries, and in morel sales at food stores and restaurants.
Retail prices for fresh morels range from $25 to $40 per pound, Spanier said.
“It’s a tremendous lost opportunity,” he explained. “We might not see this in the Sierras for another 10 years.”
Visitors can drive in the forest for hours without escaping the ravages of the fire - stands of stripped, blackened trunks rising from barren moonscapes of scorched earth. Other trees are half green, half withered brown.
The Forest Service is currently clearing trees around roads and popular areas. Highway 120 through Stanislaus is open, but the public has access only to specific campgrounds, picnic areas and kayak launch spots.
“They have to stay there; they can’t take a hike; it’s too dangerous,” said Gmelin. Mushroom hunting is not allowed.
Yet, despite the ban, and threat of a $5,000 fine and six months in jail, smugglers are hauling out hundreds of pounds of morels, and enforcement personnel are confiscating contraband daily, said Garcia.
Groveland mushroom hunter Ryan Evans said he knows gatherers who have “pulled out so many morels that they’re sick of picking them, and everyone is serving morels at home. I’ve never seen anything like this.”
To avoid suspicion, Evans said the trick is to hike, not drive, to mushroom areas.
Mushroom hunters are easily spotted in local bars, he noted, because they are dressed head-to-toe in camouflage.
Spanier is currently buying up to a half ton of morels each week, and he suspects half of that is being illegally picked in Stanislaus. Still, he adds, “it’s a drop in the bucket compared to what’s available” in the forest.
(Editing by Jill Serjeant and Gunna Dickson)