Volunteers gather soil samples in the Deschutes National Forest as part of a study by the U.S. Forest Service on the habitat of the Matsutake mushroom.
Mushroom harvester camps in the Crescent Ranger District, which collectively rival the population of nearby towns, are weighing in on how forests are managed in an effort to protect the country’s top-producing Matsutake area.
Roughly 2,000 seasonal Matsutake mushroom pickers come to the Crescent Lake area every fall to gather the gourmet fungus for the Japanese market. A group of these harvesters and others in the Oregon mushroom-gathering community worked with the Forest Service this past fall on a multi-year study to determine the impact that winter tree thinning will have on Matsutake health. Both groups hope to find ways to lessen any impact tree thinning could have on the valuable mushroom.
Matsutake prices have fallen in the past 10 to 15 years because of competition from Korea and China, but harvesters still flock to the volcanic, well-drained soils of the Deschutes National Forest that produce the largest concentration of the mushroom in the U.S. “In the 1990s, one pound of Matsutakes was worth more than a truckload of logs,” says Carl Wilmsen, executive director of the Alliance of Forest Workers & Harvesters.
This past fall a bumper crop and international competition helped reduce prices to as low as $1 a pound for the picker. The alliance has successfully lobbied the U.S. Forest Service to reduce the total acreage thinned in the area in the past decade and to lead the collaborative study last fall to help protect the mushroom habitat.
Matsutakes, like many fungi, form a symbiotic relationship with trees, providing minerals in exchange for sugars. “These fungi are on the roots of the trees,” says Dan Luoma, an OSU mycologist and designer of the study. “If you cut down the tree, there’s no more food for the fungus.” That said, Luoma notes that cutting some trees may be beneficial because forests floors that are only 40% to 70% covered by tree canopy are prime spots for Matsutake production. Logging during the winter also may help reduce damage to dormant mushrooms. These are questions the study aims to answer once it is completed in the next few years.