Warm, wet conditions this spring have created a super bounty of mushrooms in areas that were torched by wildfires in Stevens County last year. The harvest has drawn many commercial mushroom hunters from out of the area, creating temporary boomtown tent camps in some locations.
The Carpenter Ridge fire that consumed over 65,000 acres near the Fruitland and Hunters area last summer is now carpeted with morel mushrooms that has drawn hunters to the area. Much of the burned land is state and federally-owned, with pickers obtaining permits to harvest the government parcels. The Bureau of Land Management owns 23,000 acres in Stevens County and has issued 123 commercial picker permits to 258 pickers, according to BLM Public Affairs officer Jeff Clark. There are no limits to how many permits can be issued, said Clark, and up to three gallons a day can be picked for personal use.
The Washington Department of Natural Resources that manages 162,000 acres in Stevens County opted not to sell commercial mushroom picker permits this year, as DNR staffer Bob Redling said selling the permits doesn’t cover the administrative costs.
“We are not issuing commercial gathering permits for mushrooms this year in the northeast counties including the 162,000 acres managed by DNR in Steven sCounty. Note that about half of those 162,000 acres is agricultural and grazing land in the southern part of the county – not suitable for mushrooms,” said Redling. “We did not issue any permits last year either. At the current fee level, which is $150, the revenue to the agency from commercial permits is not sufficient to make up for the additional administrative work required to manage permits.”
Redling said the state does allow the public to pick up to five gallons for personal use on DNR land without a permit.
Picker camps at Fruitland
The surge of both commercial and recreational mushroom pickers to the area created an overnight tent city near the Fruitland Service store, with upwards of 50 tents last week. However, rumors of a raid by Border Patrol at a picker camp near the Renner Lake fire area that arrested nine people caused many of the Fruitland pickers to clear out, said Curtis Pitt, who works at the Fruitland store.
Border Patrol Spokesman Jason Givens said Border Patrol did not raid a picking camp, but did arrest nine illegals at a gas station in Stevens County last week.
“Spokane Sector’s Colville Station arrested nine illegal immigrants in Stevens County; however, they were apprehended at a local gas station and not at a camp or on agricultural land,” said Givens.
The presence of the pickers at Fruitland was evident not only at the campsites near the store, but also by four portable toilets that were moved to accommodate campers; tents with sorting tables and scales; and camping-style meal preparation including unthawing steaks on pieces of plastic on the hood of a truck. The Fruitland Service store also has a larger selection of fresh fruits and vegetables and other special items to accommodate the influx of people buying from the store, said Pitt.
“We have a lot more fresh produce in right now because that’s what these folks like to eat and cook with,” said Pitt, who noted the store also sold more prepared food to pickers during the height of the tent city.
One of the pickers and buyers camping at Fruitland who goes by “Bule” said that the reduction of pickers on the Carpenter Ridge fire has been good for him and his crew, as the increasing activity was bringing down the wholesale prices of the morel mushrooms.
“A good picker can get a pound an hour out here but when there were a lot of pickers, the price dropped from $10 to $15 a pound down to $6,” he said. “It’s a very competitive market.”
By Jamie Henneman/The Independent Staff