It’s a license to steal. Last session, the Legislature enacted a law requiring commercial mushroom foragers to be certified by the Health and Human Services Department. The certification does not require foragers to have the permission of those who own the land where those mushrooms are picked.

It’s sort of like giving me a license to wander over to a nearby farm, pick some corn and sell it to the Mount Vernon Country Store. Although wild animals on private land belong to the public, wild crops do not. Are you a fiddlehead felon, stealing the crop of a neighbor?

Let’s start at the beginning of this sorry story. Two Portland chefs bought the wrong mushrooms, cooked them and poisoned themselves. They lived and that probably should have been the end of the story, but that’s not how things work in Maine.

A huge task force soon was organized, and before you could say fungi, an extensive list of recommendations was issued. In reaction, last April, the Legislature enacted the most extensive mushroom foraging law in the country. The law requires foragers to complete a training course, including learning the Latin names of mushrooms, and be certified.

That requirement has never been implemented, however, because the original $200 fee was reduced to just $20 at the demand of Gov. Paul LePage — not enough money to provide the training course.

Well-known forager Rick Tibbetts, the owner of Scarborough’s Tibbetts Mushroom Co., did not think the new law went far enough. He proposed an amendment he called “accountable foraging” that would require foragers to have liability insurance and to practice sustainable harvesting.

Surprisingly, “accountable foraging” did not include actually getting the permission of the landowner to harvest that landowner’s mushrooms!

When the certification proposal first was reported in the newspaper, Tom Doak of the Small Woodland Owners Association of Maine called it to my attention.

“You know,” he said, “no one mentioned in all of this debate that the mushrooms are picked on private land, mostly without permission.”

Doak was right, and when I pointed this out to foragers, brokers and restaurant chefs, not a single one had given this any thought.

We have a culture in Maine of helping ourselves to wild plants and crops on private land. Ironically, I took Doak’s call about this issue while picking fiddleheads following a morning’s turkey hunt on a neighbor’s land. I had permission to hunt there, but never gave a thought to asking permission to pick fiddleheads.

I got that permission that night. And the next afternoon, my wife and I showed the landowners where the fiddleheads are and helped them pick some.

I should have known better. I once got very aggravated when I drove past a lady picking wild flowers on my woodlot.

There’s a fairly substantial fiddlehead canning industry in Maine, using fiddleheads gathered in secret on private land without permission. That may stop.

On Thursday, the Legislature’s Agriculture, Forestry and Conservation Committee will forage through L.D. 421, sponsored by Rep. Russell Black, R-Wilton. The bill would require landowner permission to commercially harvest fiddleheads and mushrooms on private land.

It’s one thing to pick a few fiddleheads or chanterelles for your private use. You should get permission from the landowner to do that, but many landowners don’t care if you do.

It’s quite another to commercially harvest a crop on that land without permission. If someone pulled up in a truck, jumped out and picked a box of wild raspberries that grow on the edge of the woods beside your house, how would you feel? It’s particularly aggravating to go out with your own box and find that someone has stolen your berries.

Ah, well. The certification program has yet to begin, foragers continue to steal crops from private landowners and you can fend for yourself to protect your wild raspberries. After all, how much are they worth?

There is one crop that’s being stolen that may have great value. While researching this issue, I came across another legislative bill concerning prospecting for gold. The bill proposes some regulations for the type of equipment used to dredge brooks and streams for gold.

It got me to thinking, though. In Maine, landowners adjacent to moving water (all brooks, streams and rivers) own the land under the water.

Gold that is mined from that land, by filtering the rocks and soil on the bottom of the brooks and streams, currently is carted off without permission or any payment to the owner of that land. They are getting robbed!

George Smith is a writer and TV talk show host. He can be reached at 34 Blake Hill Road, Mount Vernon, ME 04352, or george [email protected] Read more of Smith’s writings at www.georgesmith maine.com.

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