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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

The most prolific poachers are hardy mountain residents like the Hurley brothers. Billy Joe lives a primitive existence in a tarp-covered shack near Bryson City on the park's edge, according to Pond.

"Billy Joe is the best I've seen at his craft," Pond said.

In federal court, Jeffrey Hurley testified that his family had a long history of digging ginseng.

"Bless your heart, Mr. Hurley. I sure wish you hadn't done this," federal Magistrate Judge Dennis L. Howell told him. "I just can't have folks going out there and making money out of it and removing ginseng, because there's not going to be any more."

Billy Joe Hurley, caught with 554 roots, was sentenced in April 2011 to 75 days in jail and was ordered to pay $5,540 in restitution — $10 a root. Jeffrey Hurley was sentenced to 14 days in jail and $2,510 in restitution.

Park officials say the most successful poachers camp in the park for days, surviving on fish, berries or packaged food. Others are dropped off at dawn by a confederate, then picked up at sunset with ginseng in tow. They carry sharpened sticks to dig roots — never a telltale shovel.

In September 2011, Pond and Ranger Pete Walker, both in plainclothes, set up surveillance at a spot Walker knew had been used by poachers to meet their rides.

Sure enough, two men wearing camouflage pants with bulging cargo pockets stumbled out of the woods, dirty and sweaty. The men begged for a ride down the mountain. The rangers identified themselves and got permission to search the pair.

They found more than 280 ginseng roots in the men's pockets. One root was marked with dye. The men were found guilty of ginseng poaching and sentenced to jail.

Arrests and jail are not always deterrents. "The hard-core poachers will go to jail, then be right back at it the next day because the money's so good," said Corbin, the plant protection specialist.

For instance, in October 2011, just months after the previous conviction, Billy Joe Hurley was charged with poaching 183 ginseng roots and sentenced to 120 days in jail.

So acute have the "dramatic declines" in wild ginseng become that the Forest Service earlier this year reduced legal harvest permits in the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests by 75% and cut the digging season in half. Each of the 136 permit-holders may harvest up to 3 wet pounds of ginseng in designated park areas during the first two weeks of September.

In the Smoky Mountains park, it took Corbin 15 minutes of climbing a densely wooded mountainside to locate a cove of wild ginseng growing near Mingus Mill. He leaned down to caress the leaves of several mature plants.

"Oh, beautiful!" he said as he spotted one plant. "That's a Jim dandy!"

But as hard as he searched, he could not find a gorgeous, four-pronged specimen he had recently discovered. He wanted to show it to Ranger Pond.

Corbin stomped through the brush, past tree saplings trampled by rampaging elk and boars, and finally found the cove where he'd seen the ginseng. But the plant wasn't there.

He had the look of a man who had just been told a friend had died.

"It's gone," he said. "Somebody got it."

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