A Rural System Case Study: The Morel Mushroom Forest System

Rural System, Inc., the forming enterprise, plans to work with simple and complex systems. Understanding and managing natural systems based on the best available knowledge can lead to improvements in the benefits had from the system. In this case, by understanding the system in which morel mushrooms are best propagated, land managers are able to manage the system to obtain more morel mushrooms in a given season.

morel forestEcology is the study of plants and animals and their relations to each other and their environment. Thus, ecology is the study of almost everything in rural areas. That’s what ecologists have to examine, and some as those within Rural System try to use the results of such studies to improve human conditions or prevent them from worsening.

As an ecologist I like to think in terms of systems; a pickup truck would be a good example of a system. I know it has parts and needs like gas, oil, and anti-freeze. Some seem more important than others, but they all need to work for the many purposes for which the truck was designed.

I studied a forest system in Ohio, worked as a game biologist within a land system in northwestern Virginia, and taught wildlife management at the University of Idaho and Virginia Tech. I remember well a simple system, which we can call briefly: “the morel mushroom, mouse, root-threads, tree-growth, deer, snake, and evapotranspiration system” …or perhaps the morel mushroom forest system.

Morels are very tasty wild mushrooms. In early spring morel hunters went with their small buckets under my study-area boundary signs to search for and pick mushrooms. I appreciated their enthusiasm for the hunt for buttered, fried morels! Yet too rare, and too intensely harvested, the morels never had the chance to contribute all of their spores for reproduction throughout the forest.

Mice eat them too, making nature’s taste attraction the forest’s future. The mice spread the spores underground where they grow into hair-thin rootlets, moving water and nutrients among tree roots. (This subsystem, hidden like the pick-up of modern electronics, is much more important than many people realize. If the rootlets are thirsty, trees and shrubs are stressed, disease appears, and valued tree growth slows.) The unseen hordes of mice and voles are “managers” of the nutritional, rooting soil layer in the sense that they distribute the spores that create this valuable subsystem.

Yet humans are not the only over-harvesting threat to morel propagation: deer populations exploded. Unregulated by predators and dense hardwood forests and aided by new farm-food, deer also eat morels! Scientists know the modern deer populations are endangering some plant species; they are eating too much, and putting too much pressure on the system! Maybe morels, other “forest stand quality indices,” or other growth measures are being decreased as a result of this pressure.

Foresters and ecologists study the combined values of precipitation (rain, snow, and hail), evaporation of forest soil moisture (conservation of which is essential for morels), and transpiration (the moisture loss from tree leaves and stems) together with temperature and solar radiation in equations. The results are called “evapotranspiration.” Tree growth and disease resistance are intimately locked to evapotranspiration.

If we take a step back and look at how everything connects in the system, the picture might sound like a nursery rhyme. Snakes influence mouse populations, that influence the morel rooting zone structure, that influences spore placement, that influence the seed start-up success zone, that influences root-spread, that influences what trees species occupy what sites as well as site quality… all in a system in which humans depend for wonderful fried mushrooms, game, shrubs, lumber and paper, ground-water recharge, occasional mysterious snakes, and beautiful recreation areas.

Rural System seeks to take the understanding we have of these systems and manage them for the ultimate mutual benefit of communities and landowners, as well as for general ecosystem “health.” Many people wonder how managing ecosystems can make that much of a difference in terms of profits off the land. This case of morel mushrooms is just one example of how real goods can be obtained from knowledge-based land management.

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