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Sustaining Forests

Morel Mushroom Gathering at Two National Park Sites

[photo:] Yellow morel wushroom (photo by Bernd Haynold).Research Issue

Anecdotal reports sparked concerns that morel mushroom populations may be declining at national park sites in the greater Washington, D.C., area.

Our Research

This study focused on morel mushroom harvesting at two National Park sites near Washington, D.C.: Catoctin Mountain Park and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park. We conducted interviews and collected oral histories from 41 harvesters with two main goals in mind: (1) explore and use local ecological knowledge to understand morels and morel harvesting in the mid-Atlantic region, and (2) develop practical suggestions for morel management.

Harvesters commonly recognized five types of morels and identified seasonal weather variation and dark soils as key factors in morel fruiting. Interviewees identified ideal morel habitat as closed forest stands dominated by tulip (Liriodendron tulipifera), ash (Fraxinus americana), and/or elm (Ulmus americana).

Interviewees offered no evidence of large-scale commercial harvesting of morels, although some gatherers reported selling morels to local restaurants and individuals. The overwhelming majority of morels were harvested for personal consumption.

Opinions as to whether there had been a decline in morels varied amongst harvesters. Most interviewees agreed that the morel season was getting shorter, possibly because of changing weather patterns. Other factors that may contribute to reduced morel harvests include loss of habitat due to development and increased competition from wildlife and other humans.

There was a lot of confusion about morel harvesting regulations in National Capital Region parks.  This generated some resentment and caused a few local residents to avoid the parks altogether. Morel management strategies such as permitting, harvesting limits, and entrance fees could have negative effects on visitor-harvesters and are unlikely to achieve the goal of morel conservation.

Expected Outcomes

For park managers, morel ecology needs to be considered during forest management practices such as protection of saplings or removal of hazard trees in known morel habitat areas.

Involving harvesters in decision making and incorporating their local ecological knowledge would enhance the effectiveness of morel management, increase the perceived legitimacy of guidelines and regulations, decrease enforcement costs, and reinforce good park-community relations.

The research suggests that outreach to the local communities through the regular use of press releases and educational materials could be effective in communicating morel policies and harvesting guidelines. Experienced harvesters could help to develop pamphlets about morel biology and proper harvesting techniques.

Research Results

Emery, Marla R.; Barron, Elizabeth S. 2010. Using local ecological knowledge to assess morel decline in the U.S. Mid-Atlantic. Economic Botany 64(3):205-216.

Barron, Elizabeth S.; Emery, Marla R. 2009. Protecting resources: Assessing visitor harvesting of wild morel mushrooms in two national capital region parks. Natural Resource Tech. Rep. NPS/NCRO/NRTR--2009/002. Washington, D.C. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 52 p.

Research Participants

  • Marla Emery, Research Geographer, U.S. Forest Service, Northern Research Station
  • Elizabeth S. Barron, Department of Geography, Rutgers University

Last Modified: 10/18/2010