Truffle Hunters Shut Out Of Some Favorite Spots This Season
It’s truffle season in Oregon’s forests. On a recent weekend, forager Eric Lyon leads a big black Labrador into a stand of Douglas fir trees near the town of Banks.
"Where's the truffle?" he says to the lab named Leroy.
Leroy keeps his nose close to the ground. He's on the scent of a truffle.
"There’s maybe six, 10 inches of the soil that has truffle aroma," explains Lyon, "but they can isolate the exact spot and I just use my little spoon and pop it out."
Leroy stops and digs gently with one paw. "Great aroma! Oh, that's a good one Leroy," Lyon says.
In less than an hour, Leroy’s nose leads Lyon to more than a dozen wrinkly white truffles, each the size of a button, hidden under the soil.
The fungus is prized by restaurants and can sell for $400 a pound or more. But this year truffle hunters are shut out of some of their favorite spots.
Lyon sells the truffles to local restaurants to supplement his income as a carpenter. This year, he is struggling to find places to forage. Oregon’s truffles like to grow near the roots of young Doug fir trees. One of the best places to find them is on commercial tree farms.
But last year the Oregon Board of Forestry passed rules requiring truffle hunters to ask for permission and get a permit from landowners before removing any truffles from privately-owned forests.
"It's become really difficult," Lyon says. "I had many different spots, all in the coast range and the cascades that were incredibly productive truffle habitat. Now it’s completely off limits."
Lyon says just two landowners have given him permission, and many big timber companies don’t allow any truffle hunting on their land.
Gary Blanchard spent 50 years as the Chief Forester with Starker Forests, a company that owns lots of timber in the central coast range. That's right in the heart of Oregon’s truffle habitat.
He says Starker allows people to hike, hunt deer and gather firewood in their forests, but doesn’t give permits for truffle gathering: "We’re concerned about several things, primarily the liability of having a bunch of people out there gathering fungi that may or may not be toxic."
And then there’s the problem of raking. While truffle hunting using trained dogs is spreading in Oregon, historically most truffles here have been harvested using a messier method: scraping the soil with large rakes. Blanchard says that's a concern.
"It looks like a flock of pigs have been in there rooting around, and we think there probably is some damage to the roots of the trees with the rakers."
In some instances, once the soil has been raked for truffles, they won’t grow on that site again for years. The damage caused by raking has led some of the national forests in Oregon to ban truffle hunting, even though authorities allow mushroom collection. The Siuslaw National Forest, for example, has labeled truffle hunting “unsustainable.”
Back in the woods near Banks, Leroy the lab is anxious to get back to work. Forager Eric Lyon says he shares foresters’ concerns that raking for truffles can damage the soil and tree roots. “That’s why using a dog is a really incredible, ethical environmental way of harvesting these truffles.”
Lyon says Oregon is sitting on a culinary bounty worth millions. He hopes with time and education on both sides, truffle hunters will be given access to Oregon’s timberland.
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