California Mushroom Foraging Regulations: Impacts on Different Human Communities

For hundreds of years, Native Americans actively tended the landscape of California (Anderson). Their hands-on approach to stewardship resulted in increased biodiversity thriving ecosystems where organisms, fungi and their fruit bodies interact. The lasting effects of this can still be seen today. Nonsensically, western ideology idolizes ‘pristine nature’ or wilderness separate from human civilization, as if humans themselves are not a product of evolution and inherently natural. California and many other places owe their landscape full of diverse ecosystems to the care native people implemented before colonization. The false understanding that human interaction with nature always harms nature is a result of western interpretation of the human experience and capitalism.

In his book How to Change Your Mind, Michael Pollan explains the coevolution of mushrooms and people because of tactile interaction as well as consumption. He quotes the world renowned mycologist, Paul Stamets, who says, “more likely than not [psilocybin found in mushrooms] was pivotal in human evolution” (116). Reciprocatively, Pollan acknowledges the brilliance of mushrooms utilizing the biochemical coincidence of human receptivity to psilocybin to increase each species’ distribution and population size. Mushrooms rely on humans and other creatures for propagation. Humans are intelligent, travel, and talk to one another to spread ideas and lived experiences – especially influential and wondrous ones resulting from the nicknamed “flesh of the gods.” Mushrooms have surfaced in art, religion, music, science, education, and pop culture. The ancient yet current relationship between mushrooms and humans is undeniable. 

Problematically, this relationship is now being interfered with by foraging regulations. Current foraging regulations in California are not based in logic or science – they are instead based on the positive moral association with conservation rooted in white saviorism. A common misconception is that nature is fragile and must be protected by other less educated people. In actuality, humans do not know what an ecosystem in peak form looks like because there is not one – nature is fluid and adaptive. It is likely that the group of people conservationists are seeking to protect a landscape from are more knowledgeable about the land than the visiting scientists because they grew up on the land. As such, the local people are being pushed to utilize land in a way they would not have previously in order to provide for the global economy they have been forced into to uplift themselves out of poverty. Despite whatever good intentions conservation projects are founded upon, conservation is a title under which people gain and maintain control of an area (Robbins). Enforced by mushroom foraging regulations is an exercise of control and discriminates against certain ethnic groups and their posterity by interfering with the passing down of traditions, intergenerational knowledge, and values. 

Unfortunately, it is common today for parks and reserves to have and enforce regulations that prohibit mushroom foraging, despite the historic relationship between humans and mushrooms. Mycologist and former UCSC student David Arora explains that in the 1990s, many park authorities and land management agencies in coastal California closed public lands to mushroom gathering, adhering to preservationist ideology. Arora concludes “The result is that it is illegal to pick porcini on nearly all public lands over a 6,000-square-mile area, even though they grow prolifically in coastal California” (356). To avoid illegally foraging and risking punishment, it is now crucial to check the regulations of the land before foraging. 

The Sonoma County Mycological Association published a guide in 2016 of California mushroom foraging laws to educate the public and prospective foragers. As it currently stands, mushroom harvesting is not allowed anywhere in Sonoma County except for Salt Point State Park with a limit of three pounds per person per day and the threat of a hefty fine if exceeded. Jackson State Forest and National Forests require permits ranging from free to extremely costly depending on the forest with varying foraging specifics. Picking mushrooms is only allowed in some national parks and on land managed by the Bureau of Land Management, so checking online beforehand is recommended to avoid punishment. In Point Reyes National Seashore, two gallons of mushrooms are permitted per adult per day. Although regulations specific to mushroom foraging are absent from many California parks’ websites, there are overarching restrictions against foraging or removing anything from the park altogether that prevent mushroom harvesting within the parks. And of course, it is advised to never forage on private property. The varying and area specific regulations are confusing and deter people from foraging. 

Another issue with the regulations on mushroom foraging in the state of California is that they are not based in any science or truth. A long term study conducted in Switzerland found that harvesting mushrooms by either picking or cutting did not impair the fungi’s ability to produce fruit bodies in future fruiting seasons. Harvesting did not affect the diversity of mushrooms either. The study found that trampling soil actually degraded the fungi more than harvesting (Egli). The figure below demonstrates this. (a) represents plots with (circles) or without (squares) harvesting of fruit bodies and (b) represents plots with (circles) or without (squares) forest floor trampling. The values in the top figure are means of the numbers of fungal species and those in the bottom one are means of log10 transformed annual sums of fruit bodies. This finding proves that current mushroom regulations that prevent harvesting are not based in science. In another study, researchers observed meetings held in Spain to discuss establishment of mushroom harvesting reserves to resolve arising conflict between mushroom foragers and landowners. The landowners primarily owned forested land and perceived the congestion of mushroom pickers to be harmful to the fungi on their property. They determined this by the number of mushrooms fungi produced which could have been altered by trampling of foragers but not the act of foraging itself. Equally determining their perception of harm being done by mushroom foragers was their concern for privacy and involvement in the industry of harvesting of natural resources (Górriz-Mifsud). This shows that, although conservation concerns are held up as the reason for mushroom foraging regulations, the root of implementation of the regulations is in yearning for social control. 

The regulations around mushroom foraging are discriminatory, particularly for Southeast Asian immigrants, Italian immigrants, and people of low-income economic status. Some Southeast Asian immigrants grew up mushroom foraging in wooded areas and intend to carry that tradition on in their new home. In California, there are many mushroom foragers who have immigrated from Laos. They typically mushroom hunt in small family units of two to five people. Negative effects of overcrowding a mushroom spot and trampling the mycelium are well-known to them, and these foragers are able to practice their harvesting sustainably. Similarly, Italian immigrants wish to continue the familial tradition of hunting for mushrooms, specifically porcini and queen boletes. Unfortunately, queen boletes are most populous in privately owned areas or publicly owned parks that prohibit mushrooms from being harvested (Arora). The regulations that interfere with Southeast Asian and Italian immigrants’ foraging practices are attempts to control the traditional activities of these communities. 

In most cases where foraging is allowed, only foraging for personal consumption is tolerated while harvesting for sale is prohibited. This excludes low-income socioeconomic classes from being able to harvest mushrooms. People who barely make enough money to support themselves and their families cannot spare time for activities that do not generate income. If selling their harvested mushrooms was allowed, it would be more likely that foraging traditions are carried on and their cultures’ practices preserved. The current regulations are exclusionary to mushroom foragers of low income status although there is no production cost to be lost or cost to fungi. This means that there is no legitimate reason to limit foraging to personal use and forbid distribution for profit. Such restrictions only make foraging as well as outdoor recreation in general less accessible for low-income groups. 

Furthermore, children of all backgrounds and the future of humanity are negatively impacted by the current mushroom foraging regulations. Young people must have tangible interaction with nature to instill the practice of caring for the earth in the next generations’ adults. The current hands-off narrative surrounding mushrooms causes some children to hide their cultural practices and develop a sort of shame around them, deterring them from continuing these activities, passing on their inherited intergenerational knowledge, and developing a meaningful relationship with nature.

“In response to the official intolerance for mushroom gathering, an entire generation of mushroom hunters has grown up practicing the activity in secret” (356).

Aurora writes in California Porcini: Three New Taxa, Observations on Their Harvest, and the Tragedy of No Commons 1

 This circumstance, dubbed the tragedy of no commons by Arora, brought about by mushroom harvesting regulations rooted in western preservationist beliefs has resulted in more covert illegal foraging and less children experiencing the natural wonder of fungi. In short, these regulations are doing exactly what they were meant to do: controlling human interaction with the natural world.

An incorrect assumption that led to the implementation of foraging regulations in the first place is that foragers do not know what they are doing and need regulations in place to stop them from damaging organisms. In reality, foragers are usually acting based on tried and true intergenerational knowledge that promote sustainability. Susan Charnley found that voluntary codes of conduct are best for managing urban foraging of nontimber forest products instead of coercive ones. Perhaps this could be applied to mushroom foraging regulations throughout the entire state of California for the benefit of everyone – humans and fungi alike.  

Moving forward, we must address the inequities and discrimination caused by mushroom foraging laws not founded in fact in California today. They negatively impact our state, our immigrant and low-income communities, and our posterity while infringing upon United States residents’ rights. Enforcement, prohibition, and exclusion are not the tactics that will bring us to a post-colonial society where conservation includes the interests of all organisms, not just certain human groups who want control. 

Big Basin, Spring of 2020

Sources

Anderson, Kat. Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of 

California’s Natural Resources. University of California Press, 2013.

Arora, David. “California Porcini: Three New Taxa, Observations on Their Harvest, and the 

Tragedy of No Commons 1.” Economic Botany 62.3 (2008): 356–375. Web.

Charnley, Susan. “Natural Resource Access Rights and Wrongs: Nontimber Forest Products 

Gathering in Urban Environments.” Society & natural resources 31.6 (2018): 734–750. 

Web.

Egli, Simon. “Mushroom Picking Does Not Impair Future Harvests – Results of a Long-Term 

Study in Switzerland.” Biological conservation 129.2 (2006): 271–276. Web.

Górriz-Mifsud, Elena. “What to Do with Mushroom Pickers in My Forest? Policy Tools from 

the Landowners’ Perspective.” Land use policy 63 (2017): 450–460. Web.

“Mushroom Picking Rules & Regulations.” Sonoma County Mycological Association, 2016, 

http://www.somamushrooms.org/foraging/rules.php. 

Pollan, Michael. How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us 

about Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. Penguin 

Books, 2019.

Robbins, Paul. Political Ecology: a Critical Introduction. Wiley-Blackwell, 2020. 

Banana Slug and Mushroom Image by Sonya