The political ecology of wild mushroom harvester stewardship in the Pacific Northwest
A surge in commercial wild mushroom extraction since the 1980s has precipitated a need for research that examines harvester culture and the ramifications to forest conservation. My research looks at harvest practices in two key areas of the Pacific Northwest: the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State, and Northwest Oregon.
The primary data for this study were collected using ethnographic methods. Semistructured and informal interviews were performed with harvesters in fifteen months of fieldwork spanning six years. Additional interviews were also done with mushroom buyers, forest managers, law enforcement, and other stakeholders. Participant observation of harvester-associated activities included joining them in the forest to pick mushrooms, camping together, visiting their homes, and interacting in various social activities.
Harvesters are a diverse group of people in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, class, and the physical distance that they travel in pursuit of mushrooms. Individuals typically harvest for a range of reasons beyond economic gain. Harvesters were found to have a strong connection to their patches as important physical places and in protecting the mushroom resource. Many engaged in investigating avenues of resource stewardship. An analysis of these findings using political ecology and common property theory concludes that trends in forest management such as restricting forest access through gates and regulations are stressing harvester culture and undermining stewardship attitudes and behaviors.
This study contributes to anthropological knowledge by illustrating that, even in an industrialized country like the United States, individuals operating in social networks formed around resource extraction may develop attitudes and behaviors to mitigate resource degradation. This research comes at a critical juncture as forest management and policy are undergoing extensive revision; changes that are being influenced by a multitude of stakeholders concerned with how and for whom forests are managed. Mushroom harvesters have been largely absent from these debates and revisory processes. By looking at how mushroom harvesting is embedded in complex social systems of political, economic, and cultural opportunities and constraints, incentives, and disincentives, the study illuminates variables that act as restraints and influence the efficacy of forest policy and management. Through the use of ethnography and multilevel analysis, the views and lifeways of harvesters are partially revealed, and show why harvesters direct participation in forest management, policy, and scientific processes can improve and are probably essential to forest conservation efforts.
0327: Physical anthropology