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Forests suddenly off-limits to pickers
By Diane Dietz, The Register-Guard October 12, 2005

An abrupt change in U.S. Forest Service policy will leave thousands of
Oregon mushroom harvesters without a means of picking up spare cash -
beginning now, on the very cusp of chanterelle season.

But that's not all. The lawsuit-driven policy shift also may severely restrict the
availability of Christmas trees on Forest Service land, disappointing as many as
65,000 wild-tree-hunting families during the coming holidays.

Forest Service officials say they have no choice. The restrictions
come from a California court ruling that says the agency has to give the public appeal
rights - now - with regard to nearly every project or activity the
forest allows or under- takes.

But environmental attorneys who brought the case say the Forest Service is
overreacting by including noncontroversial activities such as
Christmas tree cutting and mushroom hunting.

Brookings mushroom buyer Tom Way has been frantically calling
congressional offices and Forest Service officials, but no one has given him any
hope of reprieve, he said. 

"They're not sympathizing," he said. "They're not saying, `We'll
allow a public review of the decision.' They just terminated it, and that's the way it is."

Oregon's wild-mushroom industry is worth between $10 million and $100
million annually, said David Pilz, a forest mycologist at Oregon State University.

But even that wide range is a guess. "Nobody tracks it. Most of the actual purchases from mushroom
harvesters are in cash. It's somewhat of a secretive industry," he said.

The delicate golden chanterelles are shipped to Europe and to fine
restaurants all over the United States, he said. Others go to Japan.

Many of the harvesters are Southwest Oregon residents who work part
time and rely on mushroom picking to add a couple of thousand dollars to their
annual income.

Cottage Grove resident Janelle Plowright, for instance, worked at an
Emporium store until it was closed, then worked on and off at
Wal-Mart. Her boyfriend is a roofer. Both of them supplement their incomes through
mushroom harvesting. Plowright's three children often join in the hunt.

"You get in a big patch and you get an adrenaline rush," Plowright
said Tuesday while stemming hundreds of chanterelles with the flick of her
knife.

The Forest Service couldn't immediately say how many permits it
issues to pickers in Southwest Oregon. The price ranges from $20 for a five-day
permit to an average of $250 for a seasonal pass. Last year, the agency
collected $309,124 in those permit fees.

Way said he gets mushrooms from 500 pickers who harvest in the woods
between Brookings and Crescent City, Calif. He said he paid out $10.8 million
to them last season.

"If I don't hand that money out, that's $10 million in revenue they're going
to lose," he said. "That's a major economic disaster for this community."

Businesses in Eugene also may be hurt.

The timing couldn't be worse, said John Barnes, owner of Pacific
Mushrooms. He has been a local wholesaler for two decades. "We support ourselves
in October, November, December," he said.

The restrictions also apply to the harvest of beargrass, moss and
other forest products that wholesale florists buy.

Wholesaler Casey Jonquil said he couldn't believe that the agency
would halt permitting without contacting people in the wild-mushroom business.

"They don't seem to understand that this is a multi- million-dollar
business that pumps cash into very depressed small, local economies," said
Jonquil, president of a major Portland-based wholesale company, Alpine
Forager.

But Jonquil said the permit closure may not hurt the industry as much
as some would think. Pickers still can make arrangements to harvest on
private forest acreage or Bureau of Land Management lands. And some will roam
the forbidden grounds of the national forests as if nothing had changed.

"These guys will go out and pick and take the risk of getting busted for picking illegally," Jonquil said.
"They're not stupid. They're going to `get' that the Forest Service
doesn't have any money to enforce anything, so what's there to worry about?"

The ticket for removing a forest product without authorization is
$400. The forest patrol may arrest pickers who repeatedly break the law and
require them to appear in front of a federal magistrate.

The magistrate can issue penalties of up to $5,000 in fines and/or six
months of jail.

Hobbyist mushroom hunters also are affected by the change. The Forest
Service won't issue personal use permits or allow casual collection
on the affected forests.

All of the Forest Service restrictions stemmed from a July 7 ruling
by U.S. District Judge James Singleton Jr., who was presiding in an eastern
California court.

Environmental groups launched the case to challenge the Bush
administration's directive that allowed relaxed public oversight in
the case of smaller Forest Service projects. At issue was a timber thinning
sale in California.

Before the directive, Forest Service officials could undertake many
minor projects without going through elaborate environmental analysis as
long as they were deemed of limited public interest and the agency published a
notice.

The president issued the new directive in the wake of the 2003
Biscuit Fire in Southern Oregon in order to speed thinning projects meant to reduce
wildfire danger.

The new orders were: "You don't need really a notice on this, you can go ahead and get the
work done because it's a time-sensitive thing," said Al Matecko, spokesman
for the agency's Pacific Northwest Region.


But the judge reversed the president, saying the administration
circumvented a congressional guarantee of public notice, comment and appeal with
regard to projects on federal land. His decision applies nationally.

Last week, agency lawyers in Washington directed the Forest Service
to give
30 days public notice on all the projects undertaken after the July 7
ruling - unless a project had been subject to a full environmental review,
including public notice, previously.

In the meantime, all the activities had to stop.

So, the Willamette National Forest stopped issuing mushroom permits.
And it hustled a public notice about Christmas-tree cutting into The
Register-Guard's legal notices on Oct. 3.

After 30 days, the agency will see whether any of the people
answering the call for comment want to appeal the agency's decision to allow
Christmas tree cutting.

If any do, the activity would remain halted for 45 days to give the
people who commented time to appeal. If an appeal comes in, the agency would
have 60 days to respond. The four-month process would mean bye-bye
wild-Christmas tree harvest for 2005.

Each national forest has to publish its own notices and manage its own
appeals.

"We're hoping something gets squared away and settled before Christmas
trees, but at this point, it's hard to say," said John Zapell, a
spokesman for the Siuslaw National Forest.

The policy change has political dimensions.

The first thing the Forest Service did after the judge's ruling was to
announce that it could not cut an 80-foot blue spruce in New Mexico
that had been earmarked to serve as the nation's Christmas tree at the U.S.
Capitol.

The environmentalists who filed the initial lawsuit cried foul,
saying the ruling doesn't apply to such popular and time-honored activities as
Christmas tree cutting or mushroom hunting.

Matt Kenna, Western Environmental Law Center attorney who argued the case on
behalf of environmentalists, sent letters to the Forest Service saying that's
not what the ruling meant.

"It's a total overreaction," he said. "Having lost the case, they're
now trying to overapply it to put us in a bad light.


"What happens now is the old rules go back into play, but they are not
acknowledging that. They are trying to say that the ruling doesn't
allow them to do anything without putting it to public comment and appeal,
which is not even fathomable - that was never in play in the case."

But the Forest Service points to a clause in Singleton's order that
says:
Federal law "certainly permits exclusion of environmentally
insignificant projects from the appeals process. For example, actions such as
maintaining Forest Service buildings or mowing ranger station lawns need not be
subject to notice, comment and appeal procedures."

U.S. Justice Department lawyers interpreted that to mean the agency
must provide public notice for virtually all activities besides mowing
lawns.

"We were given that clear guidance from our Washington office, which
was quite emphatic, that `all' means `all,' " spokesman Al Matecko said.
"We are bound by our legal representatives to say this is what it means."
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