At the Sudden Oak Death (SOD) Symposium in Monterey, California held in
December, 2002 several participants stood up to blame mushroom collectors
for the spread of SOD, particularly in Oregon. These participants,
apparently land managers employed by various local, state and federal
agencies, failed to cite any scientific data to support their claims.
Obviously, no proof is needed. Mushroom collectors,
especially commercial mushroom collectors, are Evil People in the eyes of
many land managers and Evil People spread Evil Diseases. Circular logic
provides its own proof.
I will not for a minute claim that mushroom pickers
might not potentially be vectors of SOD. But they are hardly
alone. Are we to believe that mushroom pickers are the ONLY people who go
into areas either infected with SOD or at risk of infection with SOD?
What about hunters, hikers, fishermen, bird watchers, mountain bikers,
loggers and other public land users? What about terrestrial mammals and
birds? Why are mushroom pickers being singled out for such opprobrium?
The desire to scapegoat mushroom pickers is
apparently being driven by the intense antipathy that many land managers
have for them and by a calculation that they are the easiest group to
target. Hunters, fishermen, backpackers and other outdoor user groups are
mostly middle class, politically active and represented by powerful
organizations such as the Sierra Club, Izaak Walton League, and the NRA.
Commercial mushroom pickers are poor, largely immigrants, and not well
organized or politically active. The same is obviously not true of
amateur mycological societies, but they have far fewer members than the
other outdoor user groups just mentioned. Land managers know this and
have evidently decided to make an example of a group that they don't like
and which they have mistakenly concluded is unlikely to fight back.
It is the consensus of many scientists studying SOD
that the most effective method of transmission of SOD is transportation in
infected nursery stock (plants). But the nursery industry, and
agriculture in general, are well-organized and politically
well-connected. So it should surprise no one that the efforts to thwart
this mode of transmission are piecemeal, poorly publicized, badly
coordinated and thus far ineffective.
Land managers have also made a cynical calculation
that they can make remarks slandering mushroom collectors and get away
with it. While it is true that those who made these remarks are as yet
identified, it would be foolhardy to assume that this kind of slander can
continue with impunity. Labeling disfavored groups as spreaders of
disease has been a preferred method of inflaming prejudice for centuries,
and is invariably the prelude to a campaign of repression. It was, for
example, a prominent theme in the notorious Nazi propaganda film “The
Eternal Jew” that was premiered before the Holocaust. If the land
managers (and others) who are making these statements somehow believe that
this campaign of slander will make commercial (and amateur) mushroom
collectors eager to cooperate with them they must be smoking something
stronger than what’s for sale at 7-11.
I cannot begin to convey the level of consternation
and even anger these remarks have engendered among mushroom collectors.
Apparently the land managers who made these remarks did not factor the
effect that being scapegoated as spreaders of SOD would have on the
consciousness of this group. The consternation over these remarks arises
not from a narcissistic quest for victim status but from genuine
disappointment that land managers seem to have slipped so easily into a
"round up the usual suspects" mindset. Mushroom collectors have been
awakened to the existence of these attitudes among land managers and will
be vigilant for a recrudescence of similar remarks in the future.
Many of us have encountered this attitude before and
it is very tiresome. It would be truly refreshing, almost shocking in
fact, if the public servants would treat the public as an ally in
combating the SOD crisis rather than as a law enforcement problem. Land
managers need to decide, and decide soon, whether they want to work with
public land users in a cooperative and respectful manner, or use
short-sighted and mean-spirited tactics of divide and conquer to advance
career rather than ecosystem objectives. Mushroom collectors are eager to
participate in reasonable measures based in science to control the spread
of SOD but punitive, discriminatory policies motivated by personal and
institutional vendettas will fail.
So far, we have seen a campaign against this disease
that is apparently driven by crass political considerations rather than
the best available scientific data, which is alienating many of those whom
it should be attempting to include, and which is ultimately destined to
fail. I will miss the oaks. The fools who exploited the crisis to pursue
spiteful agendas while they were dying will, sadly, still be with us.