Under the Canopy: The Gathering of Mushrooms, Berries and Other Forest Materials Is Becoming a Billion-Dollar Industry

By Ascher, Avery | Alternatives Journal, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

Under the Canopy: The Gathering of Mushrooms, Berries and Other Forest Materials Is Becoming a Billion-Dollar Industry


Ascher, Avery, Alternatives Journal


COUNTLESS orange and yellow trumpets glow under the jack pines. A delightful apricot-like fragrance surprises your nose when you bend closer. It's August, prime chanterelle mushroom season in Saskatchewan's boreal forest.

These beauties also happen to bring up to $11 per kilogram fresh weight to pickers. Today's harvest may be bought by Northern Lights Foods, owned by Lac La Ronge First Nation, to be cleaned, sorted for drying or distributed fresh to markets around the world.

The chanterelles, as well as the black morels and pine mushrooms Northern Lights sells, are certified organic by Quality Assurance International. Markets for such sustainably produced non-timber forest resources--mushrooms, berries, syrups, floral greenery, bark, medicinal plants and many others--are taking off worldwide.

Such rising demand offers great potential for individuals or groups that, by choice or cirumstance, fall outside the mainstream wage-based economy. The Canadian Forest Service estimates that non-timber products could easily bring in one billion dollars annually; they presently bring in around $280 million per year to the British Columbia economy alone.

BC community development consultant Tim Brigham characterizes non-timber forest products as an "emerging industry" that in some ways "has been in existence for a very long time in Canada." For millennia Aboriginal peoples have used such products for food, medicines, materials and technologies, and for cultural and trade purposes.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Even large-scale commercial exploitation of non-timber forest products is not a new phenomenon. In the 1930s and 40s, resources of cascara bark (used to make laxative products) in BC "were getting hammered," Brigham says. Regulations regarding its harvest were put in place and plantations were established.

"In many ways, we're just at the beginning of the journey with this industry. Thankfully, we haven't yet reached the point they have in the United States where conflicts over non-timber resources are becoming more commonplace--that's a situation we have to learn from," Brigham says.

This new trail through the forest won't be easy. For example, while many within the Aboriginal community see non-timber forest products as viable and welcome income sources, some Aboriginal people consider certain medicinal plants sacred gifts freely given by the Creator, and therefore question whether they should be sold at all.

Issues relating to forest tenure and management, overharvesting or damage to the land base during harvest can divide communities.

Forest tenure--who has access to do what activities in forests--is surprisingly complex. The basics seem simple: on private forested land, anyone wanting access must ask permission from the landowner; on public land, those wanting access are not required to ask permission. But on public land subject to private tenure, things are less clear.

Forest companies, some of the largest tenure-holders of public lands in Canada, typically operate under licence agreements. They acknowledge their permission is not required for harvesters to come in and take a few kilos of high bush cranberry bark. However, access to that bark is usually from a private logging road the company has built and maintains at its own expense. The company is liable for any accidents that may take place on that road.

The forest company is also far from the only party with a stake in non-timber resources on its licence area. Provincial governments, First Nations, companies that buy and export non-timber products, researchers, environmental groups and others each have their particular interests. The federal government, for example, may be concerned with non-reporting of income. Which, if any, of these groups should be managing non-timber forest products activity on public lands?

In one unique venture in southeastern British Columbia, community residents are managing both non-timber and timber resources through an agreement signed with the provincial government. …

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