All Commentary
Thursday, June 1, 1995

The Mushroom Wars

Common Property Ownership Wastes and Degrades Resources

Drive-by shootings, an abandoned car riddled with bullet holes, a man gunned down before he can pull his .45 caliber pistol. No, it is not gang warfare in an American inner city. These are the mushroom wars in the once peaceful forests of the Northwest.

Not so long ago mushroom picking was a somewhat quaint hobby of gentle folk who wandered the forests, enjoying an outing and picking a few mushrooms along the way. No more. These days the woods are full of aggressive pickers with mechanical trenchers. They dig up a mushroom field as fast as they can, then roar off to the next field in high-powered, four-wheel drive pick-ups.

The Wall Street Journal (May 11, 1993) reports that some pickers have made as much as $1,000 a day and that experts estimate about $50 million worth of mushrooms are coming out of the woods every year. But problems are developing. Pickers say their incomes are falling because of the fierce competition. Some mushroom sites have been so dug up and trampled down they may never be productive again, and the violence is heating up. Some pickers are staking out claims, and driving rivals off with gunfire. Forest wardens now wear flak jackets in the woods. Pickers have been robbed at gunpoint.

It should not be too surprising that all this sounds like the Wild West revisited. Many of the storied conflicts of the Old West had their source in the same problem which lies behind the mushroom wars. The problem is property rights. The mushroom fields of the Northwest are defined as common property, open to all comers. When valuable resources are free for the taking, takers will rush in. When valuable resources become private property through the “rule of capture,” people will try to capture them as fast as possible. When a person has no rights to the property or its future resources, then there will be no conservation.

How the West Was Owned

The grazing lands of the West were originally common property. They were overstocked and overgrazed until the invention of barbed wire allowed the establishment of private property rights. The buffalo were hunted nearly to extinction because they too were common property. In early gold rushes the mining frontier outran the legal establishment, and claims were first established and protected by arms. Miners quickly recognized they were diverting too much time from the productive activity of gold mining into wasteful stealing of property and defending of property. They speedily organized into communities which defined private property rights, and stood ready to safeguard those rights. This allowed them to get on with the business of gold mining.

The mushroom grounds of the Northwest are found mainly on federal land. The government administers these lands as common property, just as public grazing land was administered as common property a hundred years ago. This caused no problems so long as there was little market demand for wild mushrooms. The small tribe of recreational pickers could pick to their heart’s content without getting in one another’s way, and without making a dent in the mushroom population. But now there is a big gourmet demand for wild mushrooms, not just in the United States, but in Europe and Japan as well. Prices have skyrocketed, and the mushroom rush is on.

Once mushrooms became a valuable resource, the familiar flaws of common property ownership came to the fore. Since the mushrooms were free for the taking, hordes of pickers rushed into the woods. If two pickers happened onto the same mushroom site, neither had a legal right to exclude the other. If they were peaceful folk they would compete through fast picking. Those who discovered mechanical trenchers could outpick those who worked by hand. Soon everyone invested in trenchers. Competition speeded up. Sites were quickly exploited once discovered. The picker who could get to the next site first had an advantage, hence the appearance on the scene of powerful, four-wheel-drive vehicles.

Of course, not all competition was peaceful. When competition takes place out of sight of the law there are always those willing to use violence to get an edge. Thus some mushroom claims are asserted through gunfire, just as were gold mining claims in the last century.

In high demand situations common property ownership wastes and degrades resources. There are too many mushroom pickers, using up too much time and effort to harvest the crop. The pickers have put too much investment into mechanical harvesters and fast trucks. Pickers harvest too fast, too completely, and too roughly, perhaps destroying mushroom sites in their haste.

None of this would happen if the mushroom grounds were private property. A profit-seeking private property owner would hold his costs down by picking systemically with smaller crews. There would be no need to rush from site to site, and thus no need for expensive transportation. Picking might well be done by hand, rather than with mechanical trenchers. Finally, the owner would want to leave mushroom sites in good condition so he could profit from harvesting them again and again in the future.

Unfortunately, it does not seem likely that the mushroom grounds will be converted to private property in the near future. Gold miners solved their common property problem by forming communities and establishing laws. But mushroom pickers are a footloose bunch who wander all over the West. They are not going to form communities. The open range was fenced in, creating private property. But the federal government is not going to allow privatization and fencing of mushroom grounds.

The government may try to regulate some aspects of mushroom harvesting to suppress undesirable behavior. A crackdown on gun play seems likely. Rich mushroom grounds might be allocated through a permit system to cut down on confrontations and overharvesting. Perhaps a ban on mechanical trenchers will be proposed. But most of these reforms will founder on enforcement difficulties. Infrequent patrols by forest bureaucrats are a poor substitute for the constant attention of a profit-seeking private owner.

Look for problems to continue in the mushroom grounds of the Northwest as long as the woods remain common property.