A NEW kind of conflict over natural resources is emerging in the Pacific Northwest, one that has a special "Old West" flavor of outlaw economics and the potential for violence.
Unlike the "noble" salmon or the "ancient" forests, this resource seems more mundane, although it brings a high price abroad from those with sophisticated tastes. It's wild mushrooms - morels, chanterelles, matsutakes, and porinis.
Competition is pitting highly independent old-timers protective of their secret mushroom treasure spots against groups of hired harvesters: Northwest natives against migrants and immigrants from Latin America and Asia, and within this latter group, especially Cambodians, those who bear grudges against their fellow countrymen from past and present wars back home.
"It's a high gambling stakes business with a lot of illegal activity going on," says Matt Briggs, owner of Cascade Mushrooms in Portland, the largest buyer and seller of wild mushrooms in the United States. Much of what has become a multimillion-dollar business is conducted in cash to avoid taxes.
There have been several recent incidents of gunfire in the woods to frighten off rivals, and some people report having been robbed at gunpoint of their buckets of valuable mushrooms. One Asian picker was shot to death in a remote part of Oregon last October, a murder that remains unsolved.
The region has always been a prime source of edible mushrooms. The combination of vast forests and seasonal rainy weather provides productive growing in spring and fall, especially where there have been fires. But with high demand in Europe and Japan - where mushroom consumption is many times the per-capita rate of the US - the best pickers can make several hundred dollars a day.
This has put a lot of pressure on private and public forest land, where people with rakes and buckets scour the prime areas. This is particularly disturbing to recreational mushroom lovers.
"I haven't got anything against people making a profit. But where it's turning into greed and violence, that's going too far," says Maggie Rogers, a librarian who loves to search out wild mushrooms around Mt. Hood and is active with the Oregon Mycological Society.
Says Don Coombs, of Moscow, Idaho, who publishes "Mushroom, the Journal of Wild Mushrooming": "Our readers hate it when they go out to their favorite place and find nothing but cut stems and picked-over dirt."
Many pickers are out-of-work loggers, construction workers, and others in seasonal jobs who resent newcomers invading their turf. The tension can be racial, but some observers say confrontations are just as likely to have different roots - between Cambodians who were royalists and those who may have favored the Khmer Rouge, for example.
Others cite a different work ethic. "I've been in the woods, and I think the Asians just work harder," says Pete Marx, warehouse manager for Pacific Mushrooms in Eugene, Ore.
"It's a case where people are trying to make a living in a competitive situation without rules," Mr. Coombs says. "Some people brought in as pickers have been hauled out of desparate situations and put into desparate situations."
Much picking is done on national forests, where officials are beginning to regulate the activity by requiring permits. For someone who wants to gather mushrooms for an omelet or salad, the permit is free. A commercial permit for the season costs $100.
"We've had a lot of people obtaining permits, 750 commercial permits so far," says Annie Hanson of the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest in northeastern Oregon. "I think we're getting pretty good compliance compared to a couple of years ago." Still, checking up on pickers - especially those trying to earn "free money" by avoiding taxes - is difficult, at best.
"It's impossible to enforce," Ms. Rogers says. "You're talking about hundreds of square miles."
Legitimate dealers, who keep records of transactions and pay taxes on a business whose profit margins are slim, are urging more government control.
Mr. Briggs would like to see the Internal Revenue Service, Immigration and Naturalization Service, and Commerce Department get more involved. "If they did, there'd be an end to commercial crime in the woods."
At the administration's forest conference in Portland in April, some speakers said at a time of declining timber harvests because of endangered-species protection, managers of federal forest land should look for ways to encourage development of specialty forest products - including wild mushrooms.
"There's a strong argument, with some documentation, that you can make more money off the Northwest forests harvesting mushrooms than from clear-cutting," Coombs says.