They're out there carrying field guides and baskets, lurking in the parks and open land of the East Bay hills and flinching every time they hear a car roll by. They're poaching wild mushrooms from public land, and a crew of armed officers is hunting for them.
The officers and their prey are locked in a thorny battle over the uses of public land and the environmental impacts of mushroom harvesting. The chanterelle pickers call their hobby a right; the officers who bust them call it a crime. Biologists tend to side with the thieves, but they're not making the rules. Meanwhile, rumors fly that the rangers hunt fungi themselves or eat the confiscated mushrooms back at the station, and law-abiding citizens wonder where they can gather wild food without risking a hefty fine. Where's a hungry, modern-day hunter-gatherer to turn for sustenance?
Not the East Bay Hills, apparently.
The East Bay Regional Parks District and East Bay Municipal Utility District each employ a phalanx of rangers whose duties include educating the public and protecting their respective agencies' lands, which together cover an area about one-fifth the size of Rhode Island. The rangers can call in mushroom offenses to the 72 gun-toting Park District officers, who are authorized to issue citations.
"We know all the best spots from busting people," said utility district Ranger Naturalist Joe Scornaienchi. "It's just standard practice, you can't take any plants, animals or anything."
The park cops take their responsibility seriously. "Looking for mushroom hunters is part of the routine patrol," said watch commander Lt. Wayne Morimoto. "We prioritize issues that relate to public safety or theft or vandalism."
Mushroom hunters don't see their hobby like that. "All that land, East Bay MUD, East Bay Regional Parks, even UC Berkeley land, that's our land," said Charlie Hallowell, chef and owner of Oakland's Pizzaiolo restaurant. "That's public land, right? That's what I'm paying taxes for, right? Part of the natural bounty that exists here is these wonderful mushrooms. There's a reason they're so delicious. They want us to eat them!" Chanterelles are a standard topping on Hallowell's gourmet organic pizzas and he is an avid mushroom hunter.
"It's horrible," agrees Mark Lockaby, two-time vice president and president of the Mycological Society of San Francisco, the country's largest collection of mushroom maniacs. "We're the laughing joke of the world. People have always foraged for food. Everywhere in the world people do this, most places in the country too. California is the only place in the country with such strict regulations. Some Scandinavian countries allow you to hunt for mushrooms and berries on all lands, public and private. It's actually a constitutional right."
The Alaska state constitution guarantees subsistence rights on all public land state residents can catch fish, hunt game, pick berries, and look for wild mushrooms but there are no such rights here. Although enforcement is executed by just one agency, East Bay Regional Parks District land ranges over twelve different court jurisdictions, and the amount of the fine is at the discretion of individual judges. The most lenient have been known to drop all charges, while the strictest have upheld fines as stiff as $675.
Mike Boom, another former president of the Mycological Society, thinks there's additional danger in these regulations. "If there are laws people think are ridiculous, then they start disrespecting other laws as well," he notes.
In the early 1990s, the Mycological Society staged a rebellion, appealing to state parks officials to allow some mushroom hunting, or to open up other land to the activity. The society achieved a small victory with the decision to allow mushroom hunting up to five pounds per person per day in three California State Parks. Two are in Marin County Samuel P. Taylor and Tomales Bay State Parks and the third is Salt Point State Park in Mendocino County. National Forests, where permits are free, are the state's best bets for mushroom gathering. However, desperate urban foragers have been known to turn to city parks, median strips, and other city land where there are no official regulations yet.
"If you live in San Francisco, like I do, you have to drive, like, two hours to hunt mushrooms in a place that's considered legal," said Tanya Stiller, a fungus forager who relocated from Oregon five years ago. "I don't know why it's illegal here. I think that's utterly silly. I mean, people are allowed to graze cattle, but you can't pick a mushroom? What's more environmentally damaging? Mushrooms don't know the boundaries, so why should I?"
Hallowell said he would go mushroom hunting every day if he could, but he's not interested in driving a few hours whenever the urge strikes. "I've never once thought about the legality of it. If there were some compelling logic to the law, I might be happy to agree to it, but there doesn't seem to be any. What kind of world is it where you can't walk where you want to walk?"
The kind of world where you have pleasant places to walk, say rangers and enforcement officers. "Theft is theft," said EPRD Sgt. Paul Wilson. "If you take something from someone else's land, that's a crime. If we didn't have a law like that, there would be nothing left in the forest. People can justify anything but you have to draw a line in the sand somewhere."
Thomas Bruns, mycologist and professor of Biology at UC Berkeley, disagrees with the location of that line. "Those regulations are made without much basis in biology. There is no strong evidence that there's any effect on the organism from picking wild mushrooms."
Mushrooms, unlike carrots or lettuce, are only a tiny part of the fungus to which they belong. They're the fruiting body of a vast underground network of mycelium, which is the fungus' actual organism. The mushrooms drop spores, which are then spread by wind, animals, even mushroom hunters, making more mycelium, and eventually more mushrooms. Picking a mushroom, biologists say, has less effect on the organism than picking an apple.
"I think they ought to allow picking by individuals," Bruns said. "There could be rules to address concerns about trampling and disturbing leaf litter."
Ken Litchfield, a weathered stoneworker who teaches mushroom cultivation at Merritt Community College, doesn't think there should be any regulations at all. "They should allow people to pick and have a code of conduct," he said. "It's like picking berries. I can't see any reason for not allowing that."
To add insult to injury, some hunters claim that the rangers themselves hunt for mushrooms. Many say they've seen rangers while they were out hunting and the rangers didn't seem to care. One man claims an officer confiscating his mushrooms admitted he was planning to take them back to the station and cook them up, while another alleges that a state park ranger up north might actually be selling his impounded stash.
What's a peace officer to do with hundreds of dollars' worth of savory golden chanterelles? Take them home and sauté them in olive oil with a fine red wine? Sell them and donate the profits? Stomp them back into the leaf litter?
Actually, if the mushroom hunters were apprehended on water district land, their stash ends up in Head Ranger Scott Hill's office. The former Alameda County deputy sheriff started working with the district thirteen years ago, back when its rangers were gun-toting peace officers. "This year, there's been a bumper crop of chanterelles," he said. "A lot of people have been caught, cited, and sent to court. A couple of times a cop has brought us sixty or seventy pounds at a time. They just sit there until we dispose of them.
"Rangers used to take a few or divvy them up among themselves," Hill admitted. "Now we just scatter them underneath an oak tree near the office."
But seeing all that exquisite food rotting beneath a tree makes a man wistful. "I'm an avid mushroom hunter myself," he admitted. "Now I just like to find them and look at them, but I used to hunt them for food too."
On EBMUD land?
Hill laughed. "I'm not at liberty to say."
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