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Foraging National Forests

Can You Forage in National Forests?

From picking blackberries to harvesting delicious ramps to finding wild ginseng: there are plenty of opportunities for foraging in National Forests.

Can you forage in National Forests? Foraging is generally allowed but rules and regulations are highly specific to each National Forest. Paid or free permits may be required for harvesting, and many plants have restrictions on quantity harvested or areas allowing harvest.

Keep reading and you’ll find out just what you need to know make the most out of your nearby National Forest, while following the rules and regulations established by the U.S. Forest Service.

How to Determine What You Can Forage in Your National Forest

Before we dive into the nitty gritty details of foraging on National Forests, it would help to spell out where to find the info you need.

First, go to the U.S. Forest Service website and find your National Forest in the drop-down menu on the right side of the screen (you should probably use a desktop or laptop, as unfortunately the U.S. Forest Service website isn’t terribly mobile friendly as of this writing). Click the ‘Go’ button and you’ll end up on the site devoted to your National Forest.

Next, we need to find the part of the site that discusses foraging and any rules that may apply. Fortunately it appears that all of the National Forests keep that information in the same location. To get this information, click on the ‘Passes & Permits’ link in the navigational menu located on the left side. Then you’ll want to click on the ‘Forest Products Permits’ option in this section, as highlighted below:

This will bring you to the page that will store all of the information on foraging in that National Forest, as wild edibles are considered a product of the forest.

Rules on Foraging are Unique to Each National Forest

This likely won’t be a surprise to you, but the rules and regulations surrounding foraging for wild edibles are highly specific to each National Forest. This makes sense if you think about it: no two National Forests have the same species present, nor do they receive the same level of pressure from foragers.

Like it or not, a National Forest within a short drive of a large urban area will always have more rules and regulations than another location that is in a much more rural area. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about: Olympic National Forest is a short drive from Seattle. Mushroom foraging is allowed, but a paid permit with restrictions on the volume and duration of the harvest is required. On the other hand, the harvest of wild berries is allowed without a permit, but there are daily harvest limits and an overall limit for the season.

In other words, the way that a National Forest regulated foraging is not consistent and the structure of those regulations varies from one location to another.

But, there’s one more thing: not every National Forest specifies the rules on foraging on their site. You may have call or visit a local office of your National Forest in order to determine what rules may or may not apply to your foraging.

Different Plant Species Will Likely Have Different Rules

A thing to always keep in mind is that how a National Forest regulates foraging is often specific to the individual species you’re interested in.

For example, the National Forests of North Carolina allow for foragers to harvest both ginseng and wild ramps. However, each plant has their own unique rules to follow and even their own areas of the National Forests that allow harvesting. In addition to the limited areas that allow for the harvest of ginseng, North Carolina utilizes a permitting process that includes a lottery.

While the rules are different for each National Forest, there are some general trends you can observe.

First, think about the level of disruption that occurs when you harvest that plant. Picking some ripe wild blackberries? There’s hardly any disruption that occurs in that case and you can generally expect berry foraging to have less restrictions.

floor of national forest with wild ramps growing in may

Digging up wild ramps and taking the whole bulb? As that action is killing a rather slow-spreading plant, you can almost always expect to face certain restrictions and need a permit in order to proceed.

Harvesting for Commercial Use Treated Differently Than Personal Use

I think this is a rather obvious statement but it’s still well worth stating: if you’re planning on harvesting plants for commercial purposes you can expect permits. I don’t think many people reading this are foraging for commercial purposes, but still.

The simple reality is that any commercial operation (big or small) harvesting plants from a National Forest should focus greatly on compliance. Maintaining a good relationship with the Forest Service is key to the longevity of your operation. Like it or not, these rules are here for a reason, and their main objective is to ensure that their native plants aren’t over harvested into oblivion.

Tips and Tricks for Foraging in National Forests

Now that we’re a bit more familiar with the rules and regulations we might expect when foraging in National Forests, here are some quick tips and tricks to get the most out of your experience.

Get to Know the Forest Service Road System

I’m not going to pretend that most of the people interested in foraging have the high-clearance trucks or ATVs needed to navigate the full extent of the Forest Service road system. That’s totally OK, as Subarus can park on the side of the road just as easily as most other cars.

With that being said, a little bit of familiarity with how Forest Service roads operate can go a long way towards making foraging in a National Forest a much less intimidating adventure. The reality is that even if you don’t have the vehicle neccessary to drive down a deeply rutted dirt road, this network of roads still offers the best access to the most land.

In case you’re interested in learning more, you can check out any of the following articles on the Forest Service road system:

Be Careful to Verify You’re Never Trespassing

This may go without saying, but it’s really important that you always know that you are foraging on public lands.

In certain National Forests this will be easier than others. Many times you’ll be in an area where all the land you can see in every direction belongs to the National Forest. Great! Have a good time exploring and maybe not worry so much about this part.

However, many National Forests contain parts that have private parcels of land that are interspersed throughout the National Forest land. In this case you’ll have to be much more careful about thinking about where you’re standing. Nobody ever wants to be in the position of accidentally harvesting plants off of someone’s private land, whether they see you or not.

So take care to well research the ownership details of the areas you’re interested in. It’s ultimately your responsibility and there are many solutions available in our modern times.

Stick to the Trails and Logging Roads When Starting Out

Last but not least, it’s a good idea to stick to the network of roads and logging trails when you’re first foraging in National Forests.

looking down a forest service road in national forest with mix of mature and young trees

Yeah, I understand the appeal of navigating the woods off-trail and finding that real gem of a spot that few others have ever found, but it’s best to take it slow. The reality is that navigating off-trail requires great skill and comes with even greater risks. No one ever wants to get lost in the woods, and that’s always a possibility in a National Forest. This is especially true once the leaves come out, as the forest grows shadier with even less visibility.

It’s a better idea to keep your foraging limited to within a close distance of the Forest Services roads. This will help keep you safe when wandering around. And honestly, due to increase light penetration it is very likely that the trails are a better foraging opportunity anyways.

Concluding Thoughts

I want to thank you for reading this and I hope you learned a thing or two along the way. I’m always excited to share things that I love, and foraging in National Forests combines two of my absolute favorite things.

If you need more articles that get into the nitty-gritty details of foraging, then check these out:

By Drew Meulemans

I've long admired forests and devote much energy to learning about them and exploring. I enjoy sharing what I learn and wish to inspire others to do the same.