- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 26, 2005

LOOKOUT, W.Va. - Deep in the forest, miles from anything resembling a town, even logging roads and rutted four-wheeler paths dissolve. That is when J.P. Anderson gears down his battered Suzuki Samurai, crashing up the side of a mountain with bone-rattling force.

Mr. Anderson hops out and hikes downhill. Then he spots it: a long-fallen, rotting tree covered in a blanket of brilliant green moss about 2 inches thick and several feet long. He rips up a long section of the moss and stuffs it into one of eight woven-plastic sacks that he will fill in an hour.

“They told me money don’t grow on trees. They was lying to me,” he says, grinning through his black beard. “I know better now. It grows on rocks, too.”

Moss is the all-purpose sponge of the forest, storing water, releasing nutrients and housing tiny critters. But across Appalachia and in the Pacific Northwest, it’s more than that. It’s a way to make ends meet when jobs are few.

Picking is hard work on a hot day. Sweaty. Dirty. And it pays only about $5 a sack. But for Mr. Anderson, 33, who lives simply as a single father to twin boys, the solitude and independence beat the construction jobs that often pay the bills.

“I don’t like dealing with people, actually. I don’t deal well with being told what to do,” he says, hefting another 20- to 30-pound sack over his shoulder. “I guess it’s a superiority complex.”

What Mr. Anderson picks could end up in a floral arrangement or a craft project, maybe even on a movie set. Along the way, it will support more than a dozen jobs, from people who sort it, dry it and package it to those who ship and sell it.

But biologists, businessmen and pickers say the good stuff is getting harder to find, and the money harder to make.

Moss is not commercially grown, so buyers depend on the wilderness. Some state and national forests, though, have banned harvesting, worried about what they are losing when moss leaves the ecosystem.

A less ethical picker will strip the logs bare, but Mr. Anderson and his father, James Anderson, who have witnessed the devastation of strip mining and clear-cut logging, always leave behind clumps to help the spore-driven plant regenerate. To thrive, it needs moisture, cool temperatures and shade.

“You never pick it all,” James Anderson says. “Not if you want it to grow back again.”

How long that takes is a question that has some scientists and U.S. Forest Service officials wrestling with the regulation of this secretive industry, where there are plenty of opinions but few facts.

North Carolina’s Pisgah and Nantahala national forests expect to ban moss collection Jan. 1 after studies there indicated a growback cycle “on the order of 15 to 20 years,” says botanical specialist Gary Kauffman of the National Forest Service.

That is twice as long as some veteran pickers and moss buyers think it takes.

Although Mr. Kauffman agrees the science is still lacking, Pisgah and Nantahala likely will err on the side of caution. That means the forests will be off limits to the 100 to 200 pickers a year who typically get permits.

Nationwide, it’s hard to tell how many people make a living from moss. Most search out private land, where they go unnoticed and untracked by hunt clubs and logging companies.

Nor are all pickers alike. Some are chronically unemployed, living on society’s fringe. Some are recreational, filling sacks while hunting or hiking. Some teenagers do it at county fair time, for pocket money.

Few pickers are eager to talk about their work. Sometimes that’s because it involves trespassing and illegal picking, but mainly it’s to protect their sites from competitors.

Sue Studlar, a West Virginia University biologist who has studied the business, argues that overall, moss is “mined, rather than sustainably harvested.” Large-scale removal can damage other species, from ferns to salamanders.

The Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia banned mossing in 2001 until it could study the impact. Two years later, Miss Studlar concluded that picking should be discouraged near limestone cliffs and wet areas, that no log or rock should be stripped bare and that known “biodiversity hot spots” should be off limits.

But “potentially, if you did it right,” moss could be harvested without harming the ecosystem, Miss Studlar says. It falls off in clumps naturally as it regenerates, and pickers could harvest those remnants.

The Monongahela, which covers nearly 1 million acres in West Virginia, might restore moss-picking permits someday, but there is little doubt mossing will continue.

Patricia Muir, a botanist at Oregon State University, figures that mossing was an $8.4 million to $33.7 million business in 2003, with anywhere from 4.2 million to 17 million pounds being harvested in the two dominant regions, Appalachia and the Pacific Northwest.

Moss pickers typically take their sacks to a processor, someone who dries and packages it, then sells it at a higher price to a wholesale distributor.

In the southern coal fields of West Virginia, Robert Walker is skipping the middleman. The ex-miner from Oceana has launched Pine Hill Moss, a small online business that sells directly to the users on EBay.

“There’s not that much that individuals can get into anymore, but this is a one-man operation,” he says. “I pick it, dry it, clean it and ship it myself.”

A 5-pound box sells on EBay for $8.50.

“If I had the means,” Mr. Walker says, “I could easily ship out over a ton a month from here.”

In the town of Rainelle, W.Va., moss hangs bark-side-up on wires strung across a 5-acre lot, drying in the sun.

“This is hillbilly laundry,” jokes Tim Thomas, owner of Appalachian Root and Herb Co., the town’s third-largest employer.

Moss accounts for 65 percent of all sales at this family business. Mr. Thomas, now 56, got involved when his uncle became injured and his father needed a hand.

“The first year I was here, Dad dragged me through the woods on a daily basis, teaching me about the plants,” Mr. Thomas says. “We were on roads no one had been on since Daniel Boone.”

Today, he says he sells “a couple hundred thousand pounds” of moss a year, for sales of $750,000 to $1 million.

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