The edible honey mushroom sprouts from trees and woody shrubs. It both nourishes its host and aids in composition. Photo © Paul Stamets
By Jenny Wierschem
Forest Magazine, Winter 2007
The damp Olympic Peninsula is as likely a place for a mushroom obsession as any you’ll find, and Paul Stamets is a man who is obsessed even by peninsula standards. Stamets, who refers to himself as “not a petri dish mycologist,” has a mission. He thinks mushrooms can save the world.
A complex of buildings nestled in the twists and turns of the back roads speaks to Stamets’s vision—he’s outfitted a rural tract of land in Washington state with 10,000 square feet of mycology labs and offices. Finding the place at all requires equal parts map–reading skill and intuition.
Stamets, fifty–one, looks the part of a mushroom expert: casual clothes, glasses and graying beard. He has spent the better part of thirty years studying mushrooms and the thin layer of cells from which they sprout—the mycelium. After introductions, he quickly gets into the specifics of fungi’s potential. His areas of research include medicines, fungus–based environmentally friendly pesticides and habitat restoration. Particularly near and dear to his heart is using mushrooms to replenish soils in clear–cuts to encourage tree growth.
“I am basically steering to mycologically oriented forest management practice,” he says.
Stamets believes the best way to manage logged forests is to do away with burning the wood debris. Logging and slash burning deplete the soil far faster than nutrients can be replenished, he says, which leaves thinner soil for new trees.
He sketches a typical history of logging in the national forests: Clear–cut in 1900. Cut again in the 1950s. Yet another cut in 2000. He calls each of these cuts, and the burning of wood debris that follows, “insults” to the soil and a “process of diminishing returns.”
“Given the current clear–cut and slash–and–burn policies, the forests are not America’s renewable resource,” he says. “We need a new best management practice that takes the long–term view.”
Fungi, Stamets says, compose the network that holds together healthy forests and can best repair them after disruption from clear–cutting. His plan for restoring logged and burned forests comes down to plain old sweat equity: hands–on fungal inoculation and chipping of wood debris.
He recommends inoculating snags, stumps and clear–cut debris with mushroom spores that will form a mycelial network capable of transporting nutrients to the remaining trees.
To further these ends, Stamets has developed ways to simplify inoculation. He creates chainsaw oil carrying fungal spores and sells it through his business, Fungi Perfecti. An oiled chainsaw spreads the spores as it cuts, and the spores will eventually grow to form mycelia and mature mushrooms. Spored ropes that can be fitted into girdled trees, and plug spawn for fallen logs, similarly encourage fungal growth.
Another of Stamets’s ideas is to scatter inoculated wood chips over logging roads to decommission them. The mycelium would hold the wood chips together as it simultaneously broke them down, and in the meantime new mushrooms would sprout on the roadbed. The end result, he says, is a path good for hiking that also supports wildlife.
Stamets advocates a similar restoration method for clear–cuts. Chipping, then inoculating and spreading clear–cut debris around tree trunks, would allow the woody material to decompose and more quickly return nutrients to the soil.
David Pilz, a mycologist at Oregon State University, is an unabashed fan of much of Paul Stamets’s work. Pilz formerly worked with the U.S. Forest Service in the Pacific Northwest Research Station.
“Anybody in the field of mycology knows Paul,” says Pilz. “He’s a luminary and visionary.”
Pilz agrees with Stamets’s ideas about inoculation and follows his work on developing pesticides derived from fungi.
“With regard to mycopesticides, I have read his patents, and it seems he has come up with a really unique approach to tricking insects into being attracted to fungi that would ultimately kill them. Very effective, and that could be applied to a wide variety of insect pests that affect forests. I think he could be on to something there,” says Pilz.
But Pilz is more hesitant when he discusses Stamets’s advocacy of wood chipping.
“Chipping is very expensive, and I don’t see that being applied on a landscape scale,” he says.
Still, Pilz says he would like to see funding for research to test Stamets’s theories.
Stamets has been testing some of his ideas on sixty acres of land on Cortes Island, British Columbia, at the entrance of Desolation Sound. Since 2003, he has monitored the progress of trees planted in a former clear–cut, with and without wood chips, and with and without spore inoculation.
“It’s too early to tell right now,” says Stamets. He says that by one measurement, however, they have seen a 9 to 10 percent increase in growth in inoculated trees versus those that were planted without fungal spores.
Stamets developed his ideas about healing clear–cut and burned forests not only from his work as a mycologist but also from his experience working as a logger after graduating from college. His voice rises with anger when he talks about the daily danger he and the other men on his logging crew endured—and worse still, the maimings and fatalities that occurred from logging accidents. However, as a self–described long–haired hippie, his first battle during that time was getting the respect of the other men.
“Even though I was alienated at first, I gained the respect of my crew just through sheer effort,” he says. This respect flowed in both directions. Stamets found that his coworkers had feelings about the environment that went much deeper than the simple equation that saving the spotted owl equals no jobs.
“A lot of these people I worked with had a strong environmental ethic,” he says, adding that they were fiercely attached to certain landscapes, such as streams they fished from.
Stamets’s stint as a logger came to a dramatic end. He recounts a near–fatal incident in the woods in his book, Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World.
A logging skyline rigged by his crew placed too much stress on the stump that anchored it.
“Succumbing to the tension of the skyline, the overstressed stump imploded, splintering into old–growth shrapnel … Hunks of stump, some weighing hundreds of pounds, sailed over our heads … Meanwhile, uphill the loaded skyline convulsed, yanking out the standing anchor tree, which came crashing downhill right on the same path on which we had unwisely fled.”
Stamets and his coworkers took shelter behind an old–growth Douglas–fir, and when he emerged safely from that incident, Stamets knew it was time to get out of logging and go back to school. A self–taught mycologist until that point, Stamets was able to study samples on the electron microscope at Evergreen State College in Washington. Looking at fungi at the microscopic level clinched his decision about his future. “I immediately said, ‘This is cool. I want to do this.’”
Over the years, his research led Stamets to discover a host of secondary products—such as medicines, mycopesticides and anti–bioterrorism agents—from the forests that he believes could yield economic returns far outweighing timber revenue.
Some of these products have gotten the attention of the federal government. Oyster mushrooms are showing promise in reducing cholesterol in AIDS patients, and Stamets is working with the National Institutes of Health to study this further. He has also worked with the Department of Defense BioShield program on weaponized virus solutions. One type of mushroom found only in old–growth forests has produced a rare hit in acting against pox viruses, he says.
Stamets has filed twenty–two patents in the past three years, including one related to using fungi to act against carpenter ants and another covering his commercial methods for fungi inoculation.
His work bridges the gap between biology and chemistry. He often presents and writes about his ideas for green chemistry, including mycopesticides. Paul Anastas, director of the Green Chemistry Institute in Washington, D.C., credits Stamets for “seeing beyond the current boxes and silos we put ourselves in.”
“Some of the ways we’ve developed in the twentieth century are generally a double–edged sword,” says Anastas. “It all comes from a deep scientific understanding that you can’t use things as a tool, such as a fungus, until you understand deeply how it behaves. And that deep knowledge and that deep understanding is the real breakthrough in being able to use something as a tool.”
In the end, Stamets hopes his fungal research will illuminate the potential of old–growth forests to produce other valuable products besides timber, and to move the public away from the argument that pits logging against a hands–off approach. And he hopes that the application of his mycological ideas can bring healing to clear–cut and burned forests and help them thrive.
“We have a responsibility for future generations,” he says. “It’s not really what you make in this lifetime—it’s the heritage for your descendants.”