Capping the Stem

Once-secret mushroom hunting spots now overrun with paid tourist sojourns

The age-old lifestyle of hunting wild mushrooms was once a quiet and secretive one, with favorite porcini and chanterelle patches kept within tight circles of friends and family, and newcomers in the woods regarded with suspicious eyes.

But in recent years, mushroom hunting has become trendy. Mycological societies and foraging classes, advertised online and geared toward adventurous foodies, have helped spur the craze, and by some anecdotal reports, there may now be more people than ever before prowling the local woods in search of edible mushrooms.

Because nearly all public parks in California prohibit mushroom collecting, the few that allow the activity take the brunt of the fungi-hungry crowds. For them, Salt Point State Park is the favored destination. Though the park is large and remote, its 6,000 acres can become relatively congested with foragers during the rainy months.

Park ranger Todd Farcau says mushroom hunters impact the environment by illegally creating new trails through the woods and causing hillside erosion. Farcau attributes the growing interest in Salt Point’s mushrooms to foraging groups, like ForageSF, popular with young foodies and urban hipsters, and MycoVentures, a Bay Area mushroom-hunting tour company. These services bring 15 to 25 newcomers into the Salt Point forest on each trip throughout the fall and winter.

“All those people go home and tell their friends,” observes Farcau, who says mushroom collecting “has increased exponentially” in popularity.

Regional mycological clubs also lead regular group outings, or forays, into Salt Point’s forests to hunt mushrooms. These trips, unlike those of a private tour company, are usually free. But Curt Haney, with the Mycological Society of San Francisco, says most collectors practice sustainable harvesting methods, like leaving some mushrooms undisturbed to allow spore dispersal and not visibly disturbing the duff layer as they search for concealed mushrooms. Some mushroom hunting clubs even host volunteer trash cleanup days in Salt Point. Not that mushroom hunters necessarily litter.

“I’ve never seen that,” says Petaluma resident Bill Wolpert, formerly a foray leader for the Sonoma County Mycological Association (SOMA). He says allegations that mushroom hunters leave heaps of garbage in the forest are false.

Still, Wolpert says he grew frustrated with SOMA’s public outreach efforts, in part prompting him to quit the organization several years ago. “We were bringing too many people out there,” Wolpert says. “There were forays when I’d have 70 people. I saw the crowds getting bigger and bigger, and I felt the club was doing a disservice to itself.”

Todd Spanier, who owns the San Francisco–based wild-mushroom purveying company King of Mushrooms, believes tour guides that put vanloads of people onto easy-to-access public patches may risk overrunning these areas with newbie foragers. He thinks tour leaders should only bring their groups to privately owned lands. This would prevent people from easily returning to, and possibly picking clean, the very same place. Spanier notes that traditional ethics of mushroom hunting deem it unethical for a person to return to another’s patch unless they are invited to go.

The environmental effects of mushroom hunting have been a common subject of discussion. Field studies have indicated that harvesting does not impair future blooms. Some even say that carrying baskets of picked mushrooms through the woods facilitates spore dispersal. Moreover, mushroom hunting has been a sustainable pastime and industry for centuries in Europe and Asia. Indeed, the worst impacts of mushroom hunting on the environment may simply be the crowds.

Closing Salt Point State Park to mushroom collecting has been informally discussed, according to Farcau, an idea that makes hobbyist collectors nervous.

In fact, many mushroom collectors think doing the opposite—opening up more land to foraging—would be the best way to alleviate pressure on Salt Point. “That would spread the same number of people across a bigger area,” says Ken Litchfield, a mushroom enthusiast and a horticulture teacher at Oakland’s Merritt College.

Spanier, meanwhile, believes a universal education and licensing process, much like that involved in gaining the privilege to drive, would be the best way to manage mushroom collecting.

Spanier says he enjoys teaching others the secrets of wild mushroom hunting, but doing so has its risks.

“Sharing is a great part of mushroom hunting, but it’s unfortunate that you have to be careful who you show,” he says. “If you bring the wrong person, or too many people, to your most productive spot, you could lose it.”