The huckleberry conundrum

Lorne Eckersley, publisher of the Creston Valley Advance, weighs in on commerical picking

Like many who enjoy getting out into the woods and picking huckleberries for pies or tarts I was heartily offended to learn about the professional picking operation that set up near Creston in recent weeks. The sheer volume of berries being harvested—I hesitate to call it picking because the berries are actually being stripped from the plants with tools—is astonishing. Heck, in my one outing earlier this summer, a morning in some pretty rough terrain yielded a couple of quarts of berries and I was very happy with that.

What to do about the problem, if it is a problem at all, of professional berry pickers on Crown land is a conundrum, though. A friend and I were chatting about the story last week and we talked about regulations and laws, and how easily governments seem to go far in their efforts to find solutions.

The Liberal government’s gun registry of the 1990s came into the conversation and we talked about how a pretty defensible concern about some types of guns getting into the wrong hands morphed into a broad and spectacularly expensive effort to register and restrict all firearms. This over-arching approach created resentment and inconvenience among people who weren’t the slightest problem. Hunters and farmers were suddenly lumped in with organized urban gangs.

So what to do to nip this professional, organized approach to profit from our public forests, we wondered. It would be easy, but unpalatable to many, to simply ban the removal of anything that grows on Crown lands, or to require a license to do so.

Like the gun registry, that would affect many more people than the ones causing the problem. It would require more enforcement, which comes with a cost. It would take away from many what is an important connection to our natural environment, and to our own history. My few hours a year picking berries, one at a time, for a pie or two takes me back to my childhood, when our family would head up onto the mountainsides around Fernie and spend a hot, happy day filling our lard pails. We’d pack a lunch and make a day of it. And nothing, but nothing, tasted better than the pies my grandmother would make when we got back in the afternoon.

And, of course, any type of restriction would affect the mushroom pickers who roam far and wide in their quest for the tasty earthy nuggets the forest gives up in the early summer and fall. Are they a problem? Does the professional approach to harvesting mushrooms jeopardize some animals’ food supply, an imbalance in the ecosystem? I really have no idea. To be honest, I can’t say I am altogether certain that a handful of organized harvesters can really make a dent in the food supply for the bears that feed off berries. Fly over most areas of this province and you will wonder how over-logging can ever be a problem, with the millions of trees that are in view at any given time of your flight. It does become a problem, of course, but it looks impossible.

Personally, I would have no problem with a regulation that bans taking produce for profit, which targets the organized efforts but leaves the berries and mushrooms for the amateurs and the animals. But that doesn’t address another of the issues that arose along with the reports of the professionals near Creston Another approach, even more offensive than stripping the bushes of their berries, is apparently to cut the berry-laden branches off and load them into vehicles, then remove the berries at home. Damaging the bushes seems to be a practice taken on by a different group, which might not be the produce for all I know.

There are already regulations in place designed to protect Crown lands, of course. We can’t just set off into the woods and start cutting down trees for firewood. Permits are required. Even the cutting of a family Christmas tree probably needs a permit, not that the practice is likely to raise much concern.

I suspect what bothers me most about the professional berry strippers has less to do with the threat they might be to bears and more about the attitude that if there’s a way to turn anything into a profit, someone will do it, consequences be damned. That me-first attitude gnaws at my generation, the one that grew up being taught that the greater good was more important than the individual desire. Probably for the worse, that principle has largely been abandoned, though, and it’s quite possible that there is no public support to regulate this latest effort to profit from nature’s dwindling bounty.

Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance

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