By MAUREEN HAYDEN
Rain that pounded Brown County State Park in early April dampened the number of hikers and mountain bikers in Indiana’s largest state park, but foragers of the property’s 15,000 acres of forest welcomed the weather.
With the arrival of spring, they’ve been searching for mushrooms, and this year they’ll be able to roam deeper into the woods without violating the law. Mushroom hunters — as well as gatherers of fruits and nuts — may now legally leave official trails in all state parks.
Hunters of the prized morel mushrooms — which go for about $40 a pound in grocery stores — pushed for the change in rules, which had been aimed at protecting wildlife. Their annual spring hunting season, delayed by the long winter, has just begun.
“For generations, people have been hunting for morels off the trails,” said Steve Russell, a co-founder of the Hoosier Mushroom Society. “But there’s been some dispute about whether that was legal.”
Ginger Murphy, assistant director for stewardship with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, said mushroom hunting is wildly popular in state parks.
But, until now, most visitors were forced to stick to trails, since state law has generally forbidden anyone from damaging or collecting plants that grow on state property. There were exemptions — edible mushrooms included — but also confusion about how far off the beaten path foragers could go.
A technical change in rules, made earlier this year by the DNR, should clear that up, Murphy said. The only places where foragers aren’t allowed now are in DNR nature preserves.
Confusion over the rules has frustrated some morel-seekers in the past. Prized morels are often hard to find, camouflaged by the fallen leaves of ash and oak trees. The most fertile sites, often deep in the woods, are kept secret by those who know about them.
“It’s like your favorite fishing hole,” said Jim Eagleman, naturalist at the Brown County State Park. “You don’t really want anyone else to know where it is.”
Some wildlife agents are concerned a liberalized trail law will increase the number of lost hikers.
Eagleman said he’s not worried about seasoned mushroom hunters: “They have a pretty good sense of the outdoors.”
More concerning are novices. They already worry park workers who routinely caution against picking poisonous mushrooms.
“If you’re completely inexperienced and spend several hours wandering around the woods looking at the ground, it’s extremely easy to lose your way,” said Russell.
But likely not for long, said Russell, adding that the parks are of manageable size. “Just keeping walking in the same direction, and in a few hours, you’ll come across civilization,” he said.
— Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @MaureenHayden