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Originally published Sunday, August 14, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Hunt is on for rare, wild huckleberry

It doesn't matter that the commercial picking season won't officially start until tomorrow. Everyone, it seems, wants a jump on the harvest.

Seattle Times staff reporter

TROUT LAKE, Gifford Pinchot National Forest — The Cambodian and Laotian pickers from California arrived in mid-July. Then came the caravans of migrant workers from Eastern Washington. Soon, women and children from the Yakama Nation showed up.

The annual huckleberry hunt is on in these forests and fields south and west of Mount Adams, where some of the region's sweetest and juiciest berries are found.

It doesn't matter that the commercial picking season won't officially start until tomorrow. Everyone, it seems, wants a jump on the harvest.

Ta Vong, 20, drove here from San Jose, Calif., on July 16, only to find a dozen pickers already scouting the trails. "And I see more people coming every day," he said last week. "That's just bad news."

The surging demand is creating conflicts among Native Americans, commercial pickers and families who visit their favorite fields each year to collect enough of the sweet-tart fruit for pies and jams.

The Forest Service is scrambling to figure out how to manage the limited berry supply, which also is a favorite food for the black bears that prowl these woods.

Best huckleberry spots


These are some favorite picking areas of Dan Barney, a University of Idaho professor and huckleberry expert

Washington: Sawtooth Berry Fields*, Trout Lake; Stevens Pass, west of Wenatchee

Idaho: Priest Lake; Lake Pend Oreille near Sandpoint

Montana: Hungry Horse Reservoir, Hungry Horse

* Part of the site is designated for Native Americans to harvest only, but one area is open to recreational pickers. No commercial picking is allowed.

"We have a tough balancing act," said Frank Duran, a spokesman for the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. "The Yakama tribe, we have to set aside for their needs. And we have the public needs and we have wildlife" needs.

A gourmet favorite

The huckleberry has a rich Northwest history. Native Americans honor it. The early white settlers relied on it. And the unemployed sold it during the Great Depression.

Similar to the blueberry, but juicier and more aromatic, the huckleberry has remained relatively obscure — until recently. It's now used in more than 100 products, from pies and teas to candles and shampoos.

Made In Washington, a gift basket and souvenir company based in Spokane, ranks huckleberry jams and syrups among its top sellers. The berries make a mouthwatering topping for cheesecake. And who can resist huckleberry ice cream?

Last year, a stellar huckleberry crop created an unexpected surge in pickers. The Forest Service issued about 500 commercial-picking permits in the Gifford Pinchot last summer, five times more than the previous year. And that represented only a fraction of the pickers, Forest Service officials said.

Pickers cleared the fields so fast the Yakamas said they barely collected enough berries for their religious ceremonies. Commercial pickers also strayed onto fields designated for Native Americans.

Hoping to avoid a repeat this year, the Forest Service vowed to play a more hands-on role in regulating pickers and preserving the traditional Indian berry fields.

The Forest Service announced that commercial pickers couldn't obtain a permit to harvest in the Gifford Pinchot until Aug. 15 to give tribal members first crack at the crop. It's the latest starting date ever.

But as the past few weeks have shown, few pickers are willing to wait when demand is so high and the berries so few.

"It's not just Washington. The huckleberry shortage is common throughout this region," said Dan Barney, a horticulture professor from the University of Idaho and a huckleberry expert.

Demand is outstripping supply especially in northern Idaho, northwest Montana and central Oregon, he said. Access to many berry fields has been closed due to flood-damaged roads or to protect endangered species. And trees are encroaching on some fields, leaving more pickers with fewer bushes, he said.

It also doesn't help that this year's crop is smaller than normal. Some berry experts blame the low snowpack. Others say the cold spring was the culprit.

Premier region

Of the dozens of huckleberry varieties in the region, the black or big huckleberry is considered the best and most sought after. The sweetest black huckleberries grow at elevations from 3,000 to 6,000 feet, in bushes up to 6 feet high.

Huckleberry consumption is difficult to track since the berry is rarely domesticated. The bushes produce such a small yield compared with blueberries that most farmers don't bother.

So food suppliers and pastry chefs turn to the forest. The berries grow best in Northern Idaho, Northwest Montana and in the Gifford Pinchot. The University Club of Portland, a private club in Oregon, uses huckleberries only from the Gifford Pinchot to make its signature Lemon Huckleberry Tart.

The Forest Service estimates that more than 137,000 pounds of huckleberries were picked commercially in this area in the last fiscal year.

It's also where the Sawtooth Berry Fields are found. Barney, the horticulture professor, considers the Sawtooth fields "the country's premier huckleberry site" due to its high volume and a wide variety of berries.

The fields are an ancient Native American picking ground. Huckleberries have been a major food source for the Yakamas for centuries and remain important to the tribe's feasts and religious ceremonies.

During the Great Depression, the unemployed flocked to the Sawtooth fields to pick for canneries. In response, the Forest Service designated part of the fields exclusively for Native Americans in 1932.

Now the fields no longer hold enough berries even for the Yakamas. Four years ago, the Forest Service estimated the berry fields had dwindled to 4,000 acres, a third of what they used to be. One problem is sunlight can't penetrate the thickening forest canopy.

Tribal members also complain that commercial pickers sometimes use rakes and mechanical devices to clear bushes that take years to grow back. Only hand picking is allowed.

Earlier this year, tribal elders and administrators from the Mount Adams Ranger District met to address the Sawtooth problem and the proliferation of commercial pickers.

To increase huckleberry production, administrators are considering a plan to trim and cut up to 88 acres of trees encroaching on the berry fields.

Enforcing rules difficult

By July 14, when the Forest Service announced the mid-August commercial harvest date, dozens of pickers from California were en route or had arrived at the Gifford Pinchot.

Many pickers and wholesalers said they could not afford the delay. Greg Meyer, whose family owns Trout Lake Grocery on state Highway 141, said he relies on huckleberry sales to make up for slow winters.

"I would lose thousands of dollars every week" by waiting until mid-August, said Meyer, who buys buckets of berries from pickers and sells them to casinos, restaurants and other grocery stores.

Tomorrow's start date is more a guideline than a mandate this season, Forest Service officials said, because administrators need time to figure out how to handle the crowd.

"It's just not easy to enforce," said Cheryl Mack, a Forest Service archaeologist and huckleberry expert.

The Forest Service doesn't have the manpower to patrol the thousands of acres of berry fields, and can't always distinguish a recreational picker from a commercial one.

Recreational picking is defined as someone who picks up to three gallons a season. It's not regulated. A commercial picker is someone who goes over that limit. That requires a $40 permit fee.

But the Forest Service said those are rule-of-thumb guidelines, not official policy. The Forest Service will review the policy next year, Mack said.

Commercial picking is difficult, and with a sparse crop, it has the feel of a competitive sport.

The days of the large berry fields are over. Now, most are small patches tucked into openings in the forest.

The bushes produce single berries in the axil of leaf clusters. Top pickers burrow their fingers through the thicket and pinch the berry's stem with the dexterity of a watchmaker.

Most work eight to 10 hours to collect three to four gallons daily. They get about $18 per gallon, or $3 a pound, from wholesalers who supply hotels, casinos, restaurants, specialty food stores and country clubs. The fruit is sold in retail stores for two to four times that.

The tension is high this season, many veteran pickers said.

At the Sawtooth fields last week, Loraine Sampson, 63, a Native American, shook her head as a handful of migrant workers scouted the area.

"I am disappointed they are picking on Indian land," said Sampson, who has harvested these fields for a half century. "I feel violated."

Men often escort women and children because pickers are so territorial and competitive, some tribal members said.

About 20 miles south of Sawtooth, Vong, the Cambodian picker from San Jose, Calif., complained that some pickers blocked a public trail with their pickups to prevent others from harvesting the site.

"That makes me mad," he said. His father made $2,000 last summer picking here, and he wants to do the same.

Vong decided to move on. Later that same day, he was jockeying for his own spot in yet another huckleberry field.

Tan Vinh: 206-515-5656 or tvinh@seattletimes.com

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