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Land Managers Seek to Scapegoat Mushroom Pickers as Spreaders of Sudden Oak Death
By Rich Sobeski

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.


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