Banned From National Forest, For-Profit Mushroom Pickers Go Underground : The Salt Last year's forest fires have produced a bumper crop of coveted morel mushrooms in Montana's northwestern forests. But the Forest Service isn't issuing commercial licenses in some prime picking spots.

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

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

There are not a whole lot of people who make their living by picking wild mushrooms. And in Montana, that seasonal occupation has just become more difficult. Some forests now limit the amount of wild morel mushrooms that can be picked in a season, and that has sent food foragers underground. Nicky Ouellet reports from Missoula.

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

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: All right, load up. Let's go.

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

MATT ZAITZ: It's not easy work. It's tough.

OUELLET: Zaitz started picking mushrooms in the Midwest this spring and followed them north as the season progressed.

ZAITZ: I realized that, you know, if I really went at what I was doing that I could potentially earn and make a living doing what I was doing.

OUELLET: Zaitz says that a pound of morel mushrooms can sell for more than $20. On a good day, Zaitz can bring in a harvest worth $500.

ZAITZ: There's millions of dollars in mushrooms, you know, in the forest. And they want to close that off.

OUELLET: Zeitz is picking in Montana's Crown of the Continent region, near Glacier National Park in northwest Montana. Unfortunately for Zaitz, this year, the Forest Service here isn't offering the commercial license he needs to legally pick in the best mushroom spots. Those are usually made available the summer after a big fire.

So in Montana are you harvesting in areas where the Forest Service is not offering a commercial permit?

ZAITZ: Yeah. I mean, yeah. Everybody else is doing it. Why not?

OUELLET: Zaitz faces fines of a couple hundred dollars if he's caught picking mushrooms for commercial use. Although there is a permit that lets him pick up to 60 gallons for the whole season for personal use, he doesn't have that one either. The Forest Service used to give out commercial permits by the hundreds, but the huge groups of pickers didn't always follow forest regulations.

DEB MUCKLOW: We had issues with litter, with the latrines.

OUELLET: Deb Mucklow is a district ranger for the Flathead National Forest. It wasn't just the mess pickers left behind. Some commercial pickers were getting dangerously territorial in the back country.

MUCKLOW: Using firearms or side arms to say, this is my area; nobody can go into it.

OUELLET: So this year, the Service is only issuing a personal-use permit.

RENEE: Look what I got.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Did you get some mushrooms?

RENEE: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: All right.

OUELLET: While most large scale commercial crews left Montana to pick other forests, some local pickers are working around the ban.

RENEE: It has definitely cost us money.

OUELLET: Renee spends most of each summer picking morels with her husband. Renee asked we don't use her last name because she's doing something illegal.

RENEE: It's not like it's our job. You know, we do it on the weekends, and we were waiting all winter to come to this location. And when we found out that we couldn't get the commercial license, we were kind of like, oh, that really puts us in a difficult position.

OUELLET: Renee and her husband lived off the grid for years but decided it was time to get an apartment after their grandkids were born. They both have regular day jobs. She cleans houses, and he's a handyman. But selling morels gave them that extra income - enough, they hoped, for a first and last month's rent. In the past, Renee sold her morels to chefs at restaurants or out the back of her truck.

RENEE: We don't want to get in any trouble, and we certainly don't want to get our buyers into any trouble. We kind of tried to sell them under the radar, but it's been very difficult.

OUELLET: Renee has been selling on Facebook in what's become something like a mushroom black market. She feels the Forest Service is making her into a criminal for something she's done for years. The Forest Service reconsiders picking regulations every year, depending on where the big fires are. So next year, Renee and other for-profit pickers could be back in legal business. For NPR News, I'm Nicky Ouellet in Missoula, Mont.

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