Banned From National Forests, For-Profit Mushroom Pickers Go Underground

By Nicky Ouellet

At a campground in northwestern Montana, 30 people are groggily gearing up for a day of mushroom picking.

Most are here because they want an excuse to get outside and taste some of Montana's more exotic wild mushrooms. But others, like Matt Zaitz from Kansas, are here to turn a profit.

"It's not easy work," Zaitz says. "It's tough."

A sign stapled to a tree reads, Mushroom permits are required for this area - Comercial Harvest is prohibited.

Zaitz started picking mushrooms in the Midwest this spring and followed them north as the season progressed. He's now hunting morels in the Crown of the Continent region near Glacier National Park. At this point, Zaitz considers himself a professional.

"I realized that if I really went at what I was doing, that I could potentially earn and make a living," he says.

Zaitz can sell a pound of morel mushrooms for about $20. On a good day, which is by no means every day, Zaitz says he can bring in a harvest worth $500. He says there's potentially millions of dollars to be made off mushrooms in Western public lands, especially in burn zones the summer after a big wildfire.

For reasons scientists don't fully understand, morel mushrooms pop up in areas affected by fires. Some think it's because there's less competition from other plants. Others think fire fixes the soil or it has to do with temperature. A recent study by University of Montana forest ecology professor Andrew Larson concluded that forest fires in Yosemite National Park could produce more than a million morels per year.

Usually, the U.S. Forest Service offers a special license to pick morels for commercial use in burn zones. But this year, managers in Montana decided not to issue any commercial licenses. In fact, it's illegal to pick in burn zones in any of Montana's national forests. The ban is sending pickers like Zaitz underground.