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Smoky Mountains National Park a hotbed for ginseng poaching

With demand nearly insatiable in Asia and the price reaching $900 or more per pound, the plants are quickly disappearing from the North Carolina park.

August 10, 2013|By David Zucchino
  • Plant protection specialist Jim Corbin, left, and District Ranger Joe Pond work closely to try to save Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s wild ginseng plants.
Plant protection specialist Jim Corbin, left, and District Ranger Joe… (David Zucchino / Los Angeles…)

CHEROKEE, N.C. — The first thing National Park Service Ranger Lamon Brown noticed was an illegal campsite, littered with food wrappers and marked by a smoldering fire ring.

Then the ranger spotted two figures skulking out of the dense forest near Andrews Bald in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Their hands were filthy. Their clothes were muddy. One toted a bulging backpack.

These were the Hurley boys, notorious for rustling wild ginseng roots, a federal crime in the park. Inside the backpack were 805 wild ginseng roots, resembling dirty wrinkled fingers and weighing in at a hefty 11.22 pounds — worth $600 a pound in local markets at the time.

Billy Joe and Jeffrey Hurley were later convicted, and more than 650 of the roots they had illegally harvested were replanted by park botanists. But even with the replanting program and vigilant rangers, the park is losing its battle against poachers. High ginseng demand and soaring prices have sent thieves tramping through the vast park to strip the landscape.

"We're barely putting a dent in it," said District Ranger Joe Pond, an enforcement officer who has chased ginseng poachers through the forest. "For every one we catch, at least 10 more get away."

Demand is nearly insatiable in Asia, especially China, where wild ginseng is prized as a folk medicine, aphrodisiac, health tonic and all-around energy booster. The root is sold to China by licensed U.S. dealers, who also supply Chinatowns in cities such as New York and San Francisco with legal ginseng harvested by written permission on private land.

Asian users consider American wild ginseng (panax quinquefolius) far more potent than its cultivated alternative. Wild ginseng roots sell for $300 or $400 a dry pound in early summer, rising to $900 or more by fall. The price hit $1,200 a pound in 1998, triggering a poaching surge that continues today.

Wild ginseng grows in shaded, hilly terrain across much of the eastern United States, primarily in North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Georgia, Kentucky and West Virginia. It has a fabled history. Native Americans and colonialists used the roots for teas and tonics. Daniel Boone augmented his income by harvesting and selling ginseng. Fur trappers sold it on the side. As early as 1824, 750,000 pounds of ginseng were shipped from the U.S. to China.

Before the Smoky Mountains park was chartered by Congress in 1934, mountain people in the area legally harvested ginseng or grew it in home gardens. They called the roots "sweet bubby," slang for "baby."

The Park Service prohibits taking ginseng from Smoky Mountains park, but it does allow limited harvesting, with a permit, in the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests of North Carolina. To enforce the ban here, rangers use infrared and motion surveillance cameras. They often go undercover to cozy up to rustlers foraging for ginseng's distinctive flat, multileafed prongs. Since 1992, the rangers in Smoky Mountains park have seized more than 13,000 stolen ginseng roots.

Jim Corbin, the park's plant protection specialist, devised a combination of dye and silicon-coded chips to mark 40,000 wild ginseng plants in the park. The telltale markers, much like DNA in a murder case, have helped convict several rustlers — and licensed dealers who sell poached ginseng.

But even with these measures, poachers in the 521,000-acre park have steadily decimated once bountiful stocks of the valuable plant.

"There's just a void in the landscape now," said Janet Rock, a botanist who has worked at the park since 1989. "You used to see plenty of mature plants, but now they're disappearing because of poachers."

Thieves are left with smaller, younger plants. Two decades ago, about 25 roots weighed one pound. Today, it takes about 100 roots to make a pound.

The park has replanted about three-quarters of its confiscated ginseng roots in recent years. About half regenerate new plants, Rock said. A few have been poached all over again.

Poachers also illegally dig up galax (for floral wreaths), black cohosh and bloodroot (for herbal medicines), and other park plants. But nothing gets poached like ginseng.

"Ginseng is the money plant — there's just no comparison with other plants," Rock said.

Catching poachers is difficult in the densely wooded mountains of America's most visited national park, which had 9.6 million visitors last year. A single ranger is responsible for 80,000 acres. And rangers have myriad responsibilities beyond ginseng enforcement — drug cases, traffic stops, rescues, illegal hunting and firefighting.

Five people were charged in federal court with illegal ginseng possession in the park in 2010, 11 in 2011 and five last year. Pond, the district ranger, said more arrests were likely by September, when poachers are attracted by higher prices as the growing season ends.

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