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This Man Was Fined For Picking Berries In A Park: Can You Say ‘Ridiculous?’

With the cost of food rising and famous chefs using wild plants, foraging has become a popular way to supplement the groceries. For some, it’s a pleasurable family outing. For others, a matter of eating healthy or not at all. And some folks just like the taste of wild plants.

For Greg Visscher, it has been a family pastime for years. He found himself in Wheaton Regional Park last month, picking raspberries, when he was confronted by park rangers and fined. The ticket for $50 cited him for “destroying/interfering with plants.” The Maryland park rangers told Visscher that he needed a permit to pick the berries.

Author Baylen Linnekin spoke with Visscher for a book on food laws prohibiting foraging and other sustainable food practices. Visscher was upset about the ticket, of course, and pointed out that there was no way to know about the prohibition of picking berries in the park:

“There is no sign anywhere saying that berries cannot be harvested. To my knowledge, there is nothing in the park that even highlights this.”

Linnekin looked at Maryland law and saw that a banning of any activity in a public park must be noted with conspicuous signs. The law notes that the signs are to be displayed outside park headquarters.There is no signage of any sort regarding berry picking in Wheaton Regional Park, according to both Visscher and Linnekin.

Linnekin, like Visscher, was also unaware of any permits so he called the park police. Lieutenant Pelicano told him he had no information about such a permit, but cited a rule which prohibited “destroy[ing] or interfer[ing] in any way with any… plants” in public parks. Fining violators is, apparently, very rare. Visscher’s was only one of three such tickets in the past year.

Foraging on public lands has been addressed more and more as people head out into the wilds to gather food. Linnekin notes an old man on Social Security was fined $75 for picking dandelion greens in a Chicago park. And New York has seen a rise in foraging, causing them to step up training of park rangers who are told to drive foragers off. Considering that some people have been fishing and snaring wild fowl, that may be necessary. But fining an old man for picking salad? Ridiculous.

But, mostly, people take some greens, mushrooms or wild herbs. Laws vary from state to state: some have a wide latitude of what can be harvested but limit amounts and/or require a permit. For example, in Olympic National Park (my closest National Park), one can pick one gallon of one species of wild mushroom per day with no permit. But in the Columbia River Gorge, any foraging at all is prohibited on both sides of the Park; Oregon and Washington.

There is a middle ground here. As Linnekin says:

“It’s not difficult to distinguish between sustainable foraging, where a person like Greg Visscher harvests berries, nuts, fruits, mushrooms, seaweed, or some other renewable resource for their personal consumption, and foraging that involves real destruction of public property. Ban the latter.”

Banning foraging on public lands is senseless. It is a case of regulations not taking into account the real world. Berries and other fruit will go to waste and picking them is not harmful to the plant. If people are stripping an area of fauna, then enforce the law. But a quart or two of berries? Please.

Here at my place, the blackberries are ripe and jam is in the future. We forage on our land all year ’round. That, in my opinion, is the future of sustainable food practice. Grow your own. Even if it’s in containers on a ledge. It tastes better, anyway.

Photo Credit: Author