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‘The mad mushroom rush’: As a popular hobby has exploded, it’s straining Salt Point State Park December 6, 2021 - SFGATE
On a trail within Salt Point State Park about 90 miles north of San Francisco, Brooke Bingham reaches into a plastic bag and pulls out a giant matsutake mushroom. Then an even bigger coral mushroom. Then several smaller golden ones — maybe honey mushrooms?
These are just some of the spoils of four hours spent within the only state park in California to allow mushroom foraging. And for its diverse mix of conifers, proximity to the coast and preponderance of fog, this is prime fungi territory.
Bingham is relatively new to the endeavor and therefore “not super seasoned,” she says. So the plan is to bring the mushrooms home to Occidental, use a book to identify them and make sure they’re all safe to eat.
For edible mushroom enthusiasts like Bingham, it’s difficult to find places to legally harvest fungi. The vast majority of the good spots are on private land or tucked away in parks where the practice is outlawed. Although plenty of foragers trespass and gather mushrooms illegally, those like Bingham prefer to abide by the law.
Soon, though, they could be out of luck.
For years, there’s been controversy about allowing mushroom gathering within Salt Point. In the last couple of years, as the pandemic-friendly hobby has exploded in popularity in California, it has upped the potential for damage to park resources, particularly trees vulnerable to forest pathogens.
Officials have grown increasingly concerned. “We’re in talks right now about not allowing it anymore,” says Russian River Sector Superintendent Mike Lair. It’s a difficult issue, Lair says, because a lot of people are benefiting from and enjoying mushroom hunting at Salt Point. There’s almost nowhere else they can go, and that’s actually part of the problem.
“We’re the only game in town,” Lair says.
So how did Salt Point become the only state park in California to allow mushroom foraging?
The answer to that question isn’t entirely clear, but for the most part, mushroom hunting has never been allowed on much of the public land in California. That’s unusual compared with places like Alaska, where the state constitution guarantees subsistence rights on all public land, and the rest of the Pacific Northwest, where foraging is permitted in state parks and on most other public land.
Within California, law-abiding mushroom gatherers are limited to national and state forests, where collecting is allowed after obtaining a free permit, and they’re also welcome in Point Reyes National Seashore, which is managed by the National Park Service, and Salt Point State Park. Or on private land — if they have permission. These days, that’s it.
Back in the early 1990s, the Mycological Society of San Francisco successfully argued for opening up mushroom hunting in several other parks, including Tomales Bay State Park, Mount Tamalpais State Park and Samuel P. Taylor State Park.
At that time, mushroom picking was not new, but it was mostly confined to hobbyists and small communities whose European ancestors had been gathering mushrooms for generations. This century, though, foraging has gone mainstream, with guidebooks, classes and even smartphone apps for identification popping up everywhere. Over time, mushroom hunting was slowly phased out in the state parks — except at Salt Point.
“Mushroom foraging is not allowed in any of the parks in the Bay Area District because of the impacts to natural and cultural resources from the considerable amount of off-trail use that occurs with mushroom gathering, and the sensitivity of park resources,” California State Parks spokesperson Adeline Yee wrote in an email to SFGATE.
Because hunters must search for mushrooms where others have not yet been, they are known for creating new trails in the forest, which results in the trampling of plants. Some illegally dig into the duff with rakes and shovels or leave trash, toilet paper and human waste behind.
In the last few years, a new problem has arisen. Forest pathogens — and the ability of foragers and other visitors to spread them — have become a major issue, according to environmental scientist Brendan O’Neil, who has been the Natural Resource Program Manager for the Sonoma-Mendocino Coast District for the last 21 years.
“We have two particular pathogens up there right now that are a cause for concern, with the spread of those pathogens via mud on boots and shoes,” O’Neil says. Sudden Oak Death, a tree disease that has devastated coastal forests in Oregon and California, is one. Phytophthora Cinnamomi, a fungus-like pathogen that causes root rot and dieback.
Don’t get O’Neil wrong, he’s not saying mushroom hunters specifically are to blame for this problem. Wildlife can spread forest pathogens, and so can hikers and wind. But Phytophthora Cinnamomi and Pine Pitch Canker, another pathogen, are wreaking havoc on Bishop Pines, with a sky-high mortality rate. “It’s worse than COVID,” O’Neill says.
When mushroom hunters come to gather boletes and chanterelles, which tend to like the conditions near Bishop Pines, they can inadvertently pick the pathogens up on their shoes and transport them to other pine stands.
Lately, O’Neill spends a lot of his time managing falling and dead trees in an effort to protect the public and prevent the park from becoming a fire hazard. And while the mushroom hunters aren’t the only ones contributing to these problems, they do have the potential to exacerbate it, he says, particularly because of what he calls “the mad mushroom rush” at certain times of year.
Another of his concerns is the impact of mushroom hunting on wildlife. Some of the fungi need to be left behind for wildlife such as slugs and other “inverts” (invertebrates) that are an important part of the ecosystem, he says. With no restrictions on the number of people who can gather mushrooms, and the numbers rising all the time, eventually the park will see a negative impact, O’Neill says, and that threshold has not been studied.
“We really don't know much about the interactions in the food web of how fungi relate to wildlife,” he says. “This is a big, wide open question.” Before it can be answered, O’Neill says he is looking at this issue from a do-no-harm perspective.
There are guidelines at Salt Point that were designed to protect the ecosystem. One small sign at the park entrance reads “ONLY YOU CAN ENSURE THAT SALT POINT REMAINS OPEN TO COLLECTING!” Toxic mushrooms left on a tree stump in Salt Point State Park.
A limit of five pounds of mushrooms per person can be gathered, and guests should avoid disturbing park vegetation, raking the ground, digging or littering. “Do not disturb or destroy mushrooms which you do not intend to collect,” it reads.
But walking around the park, there are discarded mushrooms pretty much everywhere, as it can be challenging to identify certain mushrooms before they are picked. By and large, though, most mushroom foragers are actually very responsible and do not cause problems, O’Neil stresses. Not a single mushroom-related citation has been issued in Salt Point in the last two years, according to spokesperson Yee.
There are definitely some rulebreakers, though. “Just the other day I was at Salt Point and I watched a couple walk out with what looked to me like 15 or 20 pounds of mushrooms,” he says. “I live in Sonoma County, and I have been to restaurants that have Salt Point mushrooms on their menu.” (Commercial harvesting of mushrooms in Salt Point is illegal.)
In the parking lot of Woodside Campground, a Bay Area couple who spent the morning learning to forage with an instructor from ForageSF has laid out their spoils on a tree stump. They’re delighted with all of the edible mushrooms they found — honey mushrooms, yellow-foot chanterelles, hedgehog mushrooms. They plan to prepare them with “just a ton of butter, salt and pepper.”
Their instructor, Patrick Hamilton, has been on the California mushroom scene for more than three decades. He’s wearing a mushroom shirt with the initials SCMA, which stand for Sonoma County Mycological Association (for which he is the director).
When he learns that I’m looking into a story about the debate over keeping Salt Point open to foraging, he looks saddened but not surprised. “I've sat in on so many meetings with the powers that be,” he says. “I tried to get [Golden Gate National Recreation Area] open, they wouldn't do it. This was 30 years ago.”
Hamilton has to get special events permits to bring his classes into the park, and recently a new person was hired to issue those permits. He wrote her an email, which he shared with SFGATE:
“Hi Angelica,” he wrote. “My mushroom club is so very grateful that one — one — state park has the vision to allow the oh so fun and wholesome activity of mushrooming to endure … We — (most) mushroomers — clean as we go, we pick up bits of trash and try not to leave any sign we've been there … all in all we are clean folk who truly respect this local treasure. And me being a person who leads educational mushroom forays as a business there I (obviously) have an interest in keeping it open to all.”
When asked if he’s in favor of ending mushroom foraging in Salt Point, environmental scientist O’Neil acknowledges that “mushroom folks would go bananas,” and offers a nuanced answer.
“I don't have a silver bullet right now," he says. “But I think it would be nice to see an either all-or-nothing approach in this department.” As in, either all state parks open to mushroom collection to relieve some of the strain on Salt Point, or Salt Point outlaws the practice.
And as a casual mushroom hunter himself, he’s certainly not eager to see the opportunities further limited. “I think that mushroom collection is a really great viable recreational resource,” he says, “and a great way for the public to get in better touch with the incredible natural resources in the state of California.”
If they have to ask people to take no more than five POUNDS of mushrooms, it's certainly a very big problem.
I assume it is a small 1% or less of the foragers causing the problems. There are likely some who take many times more than they need so they can sell and make a quick buck. That spoils it for those who are seeking for their personal use.