Sky-High Ginseng Prices Boost Illegal Harvest in Blue Ridge Parkway and Great Smoky Mountains National Park
With dried ginseng roots fetching $900-$1,000 a pound now, illegal harvesting has increased in Blue Ridge Parkway and Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This is a serious federal crime. Ginseng thieves who are caught and convicted get hefty fines and jail time.
Ginseng is a fleshy-rooted plant grows in cooler-climate zones. Practitioners of traditional medicine have long valued ginseng root for its purported stress-reducing and strength-giving or rejuvenating properties. Traditional Chinese and Native American medicinal uses have also included libido enhancement and treatment of erectile dysfunction (ED).
The forked shape of a ginseng root resembles a man’s legs. Historically, the best prices have been paid for roots that came closest to meeting this ideal human-like configuration. Individual roots can bring amazing prices. In the late 1970s a record-setting ginseng root sold for $64,000, which is well over $200,000 in today’s money.
Though shape still means a lot to some who use ginseng in traditional medicine, most who use ginseng today use processed forms of the root.
By 2000, U.S. ginseng exports had reached about $44 million a year. The prime market for ginseng is Asia. North American suppliers have been shipping ginseng there since the early 1700s.
The value of ginseng has increased dramatically with the skyrocketing popularity of herbal supplements, which now account for about $60 billion in world trade. Gatherers recently have been getting $900 to $1,000 a pound for the dried root, which is roughly $4 a root.
There are places in Blue Ridge Parkway and Great Smoky National Park where ginseng can grow quite well, though not profusely. Unfortunately, the plant is now rare in both parks. Ginseng thieves have repeatedly raided the parks, and with sorry consequences. Most ginseng patches have been thoroughly stripped. The few remaining ones will suffer a similar fate unless they are very carefully protected.
Rangers are fighting back. Surveillance of ginseng patches and suspected ginseng thieves has led to a number of arrests. Various other tactics are also employed. Applying permanent dye to growing ginseng roots, for example, ruins their market value without otherwise harming them. Another tactic, implanting microchips in the growing roots, provides a mean to trace their whereabouts if they are illegally removed.
Since ginseng thieves can be quite clever and adaptable, it remains to be seen whether these and related tactics will suffice to protect the parks’ dwindling ginseng stocks.
Meting out harsh sentences to convicted ginseng poachers is a key element of the struggle to protect the remaining ginseng on federal lands. The gathering of ginseng on federal land is a serious federal crime.
There is a strong precedent for dealing harshly with ginseng poachers on the federal lands. One ginseng poacher nabbed in Great Smoky in 1995 was convicted and sentenced to a six-month prison term.
As this excerpt from a recent NPS Morning Report indicates, recent convictions in ginseng cases have yielded similarly strict sentences.
On Sunday, August 24th, ranger Joe Darling found a vehicle parked off the side of the parkway in an area [of Blue Ridge Parkway] that has no trails but is known for illegal harvest of ginseng. When Darling entered the woods, he discovered signs of recent digging and eventually contacted Sage Adamson of Asheville, North Carolina. Upon investigation, Adamson was found to have 34 freshly dug ginseng roots in his possession and admitted to digging them up on park property. On Friday, August 29th, Adamson appeared before a federal magistrate and pled guilty to digging and removing ginseng. He received 18 days in jail, was ordered to pay $1,000 in fines, and banned from the parkway and adjacent federal or US Forest Service lands for two years. Adamson further admitted to previously removing ginseng from other locations along the parkway and adjacent USFS areas and subsequently surrendered 481 additional roots, which when dried renders about two pounds of ginseng.
Cases now under investigation will lead to additional convictions. We hope it’s not too late to save the remaining ginseng in the national parks.