NC wages battle against ginseng poachers

Ginseng growing from under a log.
Ginseng growing from under a log. Clayton Hanson

North Carolina officials are continuing their fight against repeat poachers as the ginseng harvest season begins.

The demand for wild ginseng is high. The state estimates that the ginseng industry brings more than $3 million per year.

It is sold as an energy enhancer, aphrodisiac and health tonic. China is the largest consumer of ginseng, where people have used the plants for thousands of years. Over-harvesting has caused Asian ginseng to become nearly extinct, making the American version even more valuable.

The ginseng harvest season started this week and continues through mid-September, and is only legal in national forests with a permit. The U.S. Forest Service issues 136 annual permits for the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests through a lottery system that is run by the district offices.

It’s also legal to harvest ginseng outside the park on private lands with written permission from the landowner.

But poachers are drawn to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the largest fully-protected wild ginseng reserve in the country, because conditions there are ideal for the plants to grow.

Prevention efforts

Jim Corbin, a plant protection specialist for the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Public Services, has been patrolling the Great Smoky Mountains National Park for 19 years, marking ginseng and other plants with a concoction to guard against poachers.

On a recent weekday, he and a team of 10 people and two U.S. Park Service Rangers went out into the woods to find and mark ginseng plants with a special formula that leaves a dye invisible to the naked eye.

But when put under a black light, the marked roots emit a reddish orange glow – proof that they were taken from a national forest.

One pound of ginseng, about 300 dried roots, can sell for more than $600. While there are criminal fines for poaching what the state lists as a rare species, the damage has already been done to the plant once poachers rip the root from the ground. Park biologists fear the plant’s population will never recover in certain areas of the 521,000-acre park in western North Carolina.

As of late last year, the team had marked 43,560 ginseng plants. So far in 2015, they have marked 3,400. Last week, they marked more than 145 plants in one day.

Dirty work

Corbin’s team fanned out through the woods that were damp and muddy from a recent rainfall, their eyes on the ground and their hands on walking sticks. Ginseng thrives in areas with 70 to 80 percent shade, where the soil is moist and high in organic matter. As they spotted plants, the team members each crouched down and began digging near the root, the part that poachers value.

After pushing aside dirt to expose the roots, the team members sprayed on a light glue and added powder containing a combination of dye and silicon-coded chips. Then they pushed back the dirt without harming the plant. The glue, which dissipates within three days, helps the dyes absorb into the root, with help from the non-toxic mark’s calcium sulfide.

Other parks also have used variations on the dye to protect precious objects and plants.

“We do the relics in the Grand Canyon, and we’ve done pumpkins in California,” said Corbin. “We can do an invisible code for the federal government if we want to make a case for undercover work.”

Long history

Word of the program has stopped some of the theft, according to Corbin, but unfortunately, the anti-poaching efforts mostly take effect after a poacher has pulled the plant out of the ground and tried to sell it. The relatively light criminal penalties do not serve as a sufficient deterrent for some.

North Carolina has a history of gathering herbs, going back more than 200 years.

On Aug. 12, Billy Joe Hurley was sentenced to six months in prison for possessing more than 500 American ginseng roots he had illegally dug from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Court records show that Hurley filled a backpack with the roots and attempted to hide it behind a guardrail beside a hiking trail, according to the Department of Justice.

The devastation in the area where Hurley had poached was noticeable even to the untrained eye.

“This should be solid in here,” Corbin said of that area. “It might never recover because there isn’t a germination point.”

This was Hurley’s fifth conviction. According to court records, in August 2014, Hurley was sentenced to five months and 15 days in jail for the illegal possession or harvesting of American ginseng from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

“He’s a guy with extremely limited means, who lives in a shack on his parents’ property and this is a way that he can get income,” said Corey Atkins, who has represented Hurley for the last few years.

Hurley is appealing his conviction.

A first offense for ginseng poaching is usually a fine. Repeat offenses can bring up to six months of jail time.

More than just re-seeding

The area where the ginseng crop has been poached can take a long time to recover, if it ever does.

Simply reseeding the area is not enough to rebuild the population, because ginseng requires significant biodiversity in the area to make it sustainable.

“It’s a concern because there isn’t enough diversity in the genetic pool,” Corbin said. “Of course if you don’t have enough diversity in genetics, and you get an outbreak of disease, it could wipe everything out.”

A minimum of 50 plants in one location is needed to create a beneficial population for future generations. Further delaying the re-population is that American ginseng doesn’t germinate until it is at least five years old.

Park biologists have marked and replanted over 15,000 poached ginseng roots in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but at best, less than half will survive, officials said.