Truffle thieves trespassing on private forestland

Truffle thieves trespassing on private forestland

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For most of us, "truffle" brings to mind an elegant chocolate confection. But for forest landowner Roy Marshall, the other truffle, a fungus that thrives in the soil around his Douglas-fir trees east of Florence, has become something of an attractive nuisance.

"I have 15 acres of trees between the road and the river," he said, "and last year they dug up the whole bottom."

For the third year in a row, truffle thieves have trespassed on Marshall's carefully managed woodland along the Siuslaw River to unearth the gourmet delicacies that grow a few inches below the surface. Wielding heavy, long-tined rakes, they dig down 14 to 16 inches in the soil from the base of the tree out to a distance of 15 feet or more. In the process of collecting their crop, worth $80-100 per pound wholesale, the illicit harvesters lay bare the tree roots.

"Exposed roots could affect the conifer's health or weaken the tree during a storm event," said Oregon Department of Forestry's Delos Devine.

The truffle thieves have also left their mark on the land in other ways. Evidence of warming fires at the digging sites concerns the forester, since a change of weather could rekindle smoldering ashes into a wildfire. And littering often accompanies the harvest, with beer cans and other trash strewn everywhere.

Anyone observing suspicious behavior in the area, such as hand-raking or digging around trees, is encouraged to call the Department of Forestry's Florence Unit office, 541-997-8713.

Legitimate truffle hunters stress the importance of minimizing disturbance to the environment when pursuing their hobby. The Corvallis-based North American Truffling Society provides tips in its "Ethical, Sustainable and Common Sense Guide to Harvesting Truffles," available on the web, www.natruffling.org.

Dan Luoma, an Oregon State University assistant professor who researches forest mycology (the study of fungi), said the variety of truffle under Marshall's trees is likely the Oregon Black truffle, though the Oregon White truffle also occurs on the west side of the Coast Range.

Some truffle hunters are hanging up their rakes to rely instead on specially trained dogs to locate their culinary treasures. This method causes much less disturbance to tree roots. And because ripe truffles have a strong scent, dogs home in on them, leaving immature fungi in the soil to develop and grow.

"It is just in the last couple of years that use of dogs has gotten serious consideration in our area," he said, "mainly because a market has now developed that has gotten the attention of dog trainers."