Matt Carroll studies people’s connections to land, particularly fire risk and human communities throughout the West. But he’s also researched an important Washington state staple: the wild huckleberry.

He’s a professor and associate director of graduate programs in the School of the Environment at Washington State University’s College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences. While most of his work centers around wildfires, he has also examined the social ecology of the huckleberry in and around the Colville and Panhandle National Forests in northeast Washington and northern Idaho.

Huckleberries have a very deep history in our region,” Carroll says. “Indigenous people have been picking them longer than we can possibly know. They’re right up there with camas as a traditional food.”

Today, “there’s a certain mystique about them. There’s the most mystique associated with them than with any other fruit in the region, I think. People are very secretive about their favorite huckleberry spots.”

What’s the appeal?

Even Carroll, who admits he’s “never been a huckleberry picker,” has “grabbed a few now and then. But it seems like a lot of work. A gallon of huckleberries is a lot of work.”

That hard work might play into the mystique, along with the flavor and fact that “huckleberries are truly wild. That captures the imagination of a lot of people,” Carroll says.

He and his colleagues conducted 93 interviews over two seasons, identifying four types of berry-pickers: Native peoples, non-Native household use, income supplementers, and full-time foragers. They found “the social ecology of huckleberry harvesting is as complex as huckleberry biology and has historical, economical, geographic, and cultural dimensions.” They also identified tensions between local and non-local, and commercial and non-commercial pickers, particularly concerning harvesting methods.

Huckleberries grow under both open and closed canopy, “but they tend to be more prolific in open canopy,” Carroll says. “And that’s where the commercial pickers and people from the outside go because there are more berries. They can grab and go.”

Commercial pickers, particularly in northern Idaho, “often use scoops and rakes” to harvest huckleberries, “and that’s very offensive to most tribal people,” Carroll says, noting the use of rakes and scoops is illegal in the Colville National Forest (CNF), which lies mostly in Washington. “They resent what they see as disrespectful and destructive ways on the part of some non-tribal people.” It’s also offensive to other hand-pickers. And it raises questions about regulation.

Carroll and his colleagues wrote: “Differences in views over the labeling and regulation of huckleberry harvest on the CNF can be viewed as a microcosm of the historic tension over the ‘real purpose’ of the national forests. One view holds that the primary focus of national forest management should be the national interest, broadly conceived, and that local populations should have no particular special status concerning the management or use of such lands or of the products or services derived from them. The other view holds that geographically proximate populations do have a special interest in ‘their’ local national forest and that local concerns and uses should be given special consideration.”

Their research includes temporal, geographic, economic, and cultural dimensions. And while they identified four categories of pickers, they wrote their point “is not to create a new label, but rather to point to the limitations of the labels frequently used. Our data suggest that in the case of huckleberries, there is a spectrum of reasons for picking and using huckleberries, some of which do not neatly fit the categories often applied by land managers.”

Reflecting on their work, completed nearly 20 years ago, Carroll says, “I was trying to catch something that was not a flash in the pan; it was a set of longstanding traditions. I still lecture on it. It’s a great case example of how people relate to nature.”

Related stories

Wild berries

Bullying blackberries

More wild berries

Wild berries at the Greenbank Farm Native Plant Garden

From the archive: The huckleberry (Fall 2018)

On the web

Read Carroll’s 2003 Rural Sociology article on huckleberry harvest and use, co-authored by WSU colleagues Keith A. Blatner and Patricia J. Cohn. (PDF)