Man sentenced for harvesting ginseng in Nantahala National Forest

Harvesting a plant long used as a remedy for various ailments can now land you behind bars.

A man was sentenced to 10 days in jail recently for illegally digging up American ginseng from the Nantahala National Forest in Western North Carolina.

Charles Nash admitted in federal court to illegally possessing 24 American ginseng roots he dug from the Mosses Creek and Wayehutta Off-Road Vehicle areas in Jackson County, federal prosecutors said Thursday. Nash pleaded guilty to the poaching charge.

Nash lives in Whittier, between Bryson City and Dillsboro in the far western part of the state.

Ginseng is one of the cornerstones of herbal medicine, long seen as a treatment for everything from listlessness to diabetes and sexual dysfunction. Folks dry the root and chew it or use it to make tea.

Demand from Asia -- see ivory and tiger bone -- is driving what is now an illegal trade. For generations, folks who could spot ginseng quietly collected it for personal use. No more.

Now the plant is on the list of the Convention of International Trade of Endangered Species, and collectors have become a major nuisance.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office on Thursday reminded the public that gathering ginseng in the Nantahala National Forest without a permit is illegal.

U.S. Forest Service lands have been severely impacted by ginseng poachers in western North Carolina, U.S. Attorney Anne Tompkins said in announcing Nash’s sentence.

American ginseng was formerly abundant throughout the Eastern U.S. mountains. Repeated poaching has so severely reduced the plant’s population that it can barely reproduce, Tompkins said.

The roots poached in the park are usually young, between 5 and 10 years old, and haven’t yet reached their full reproductive capacity, Tompkins said. “In time, the plant’s populations could recover if poaching ceased,” she said.

Permits to collect ginseng root in national forests are issued through the U.S. Forest Service in early September. No permits are available for national park lands such as the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where even possessing American Ginseng is prohibited.

In the most recent case, U.S. Forest Service staff replanted the recovered viable roots, Tompkins said.

Federal prosecutors urged anyone who wants to report illegal harvesting of American ginseng to call 828-257-4200.