The recent conviction of two undocumented aliens for illegally harvesting hundreds of pounds of Palmer’s penstemon seed pods in Zion National Park sheds light on a little-publicized arena of criminal activity. Stealing wildflower seeds from national parks is a lucrative, low-risk activity that can significantly degrade ecosystems. Oddly, it sometimes even makes the federal government pay for its own punishment.
The gathering/harvesting of plants and plant components or products is generally banned in the National Park System units. There are exceptions of course, as when it’s done for scientific research, under tribal use provisions, for aboriginal/traditional subsistence in national preserves, or as authorized in particular parks via the superintendent’s compendium (which may, for example, OK the limited gathering of certain fruits, berries, or nuts for personal use).
The commercial gathering of plants or plant parts/products is deemed especially inappropriate in the national parks, and is banned except under strict controls in very special circumstances. Commercial gathering takes place within the borders of some NPS units where such activities are regulated by tribal law. In some NPS units (conspicuously Yellowstone National Park), pharmaceutical companies and other corporations can be granted permits to gather plant materials and related genetic information for their research needs. (Whether this should be done on a profit-sharing basis, or even allowed at all, remains a matter of debate.)
When the commercial gathering of plants and plant components on Federal (or tribal) lands is done without benefit of these narrowly-defined legal sanctions, it’s a serious Federal crime falling under the provisions of the Lacey Act and subject to its harsh penalties. In case you haven’t read the fine print of the Lacey Act lately, here’s the gist of it:
United States Code Annotated Currentness. Title 16. Conservation. Chapter 53. Control of Illegally Taken Fish and Wildlife.
The Lacey Act provides that it is unlawful for any person to import, export, transport, sell, receive, acquire, or purchase any fish or wildlife or plant taken, possessed, transported, or sold in violation of any law, treaty, or regulation of the United States or in violation of any Indian tribal law whether in interstate or foreign commerce. Violation of this federal act can result in civil penalties up to $10,000 per each violation or maximum criminal sanctions of $20,000 in fines and/or up to five years imprisonment. All plants or animals taken in violation of the Act are subject to forfeiture as well as all vessels, vehicles, aircraft, and other equipment used to aid in the importing, exporting, transporting, selling, receiving, acquiring, or purchasing of fish or wildlife or plants in a criminal violation of this chapter for which a felony conviction is obtained where the owner should have known of the illegal transgression.
The prospect of serious punishment doubtlessly has a good deal of deterrent value, but lots of ethically-challenged people look at the risk-to-reward ratio and conclude it’s worth it to ignore the law. This puts into play the many national parks that have valuable plants and plant products in remote locations that see few visitors and are patrolled only lightly or not at all. From the criminal perspective, thousands of square miles of the national parklands are ripe for the picking.
Indeed, it’s a well-publicized fact that commercially-driven plant theft is a commonplace activity in the national parks. In just the past months, for example, Traveler has posted articles about thieves illegally gathering ginseng roots in Cumberland Gap National Historical Park and saguaro cactus in Saguaro National Park. We’ve long known about the theft of galax in Blue Ridge Parkway for sale to florists, too, and there are several other plant thefts we haven’t yet gotten around to writing about.
Escaping our attention until now is the fact that wildflower seeds are being illegally gathered in large amounts in national parks and other federal properties for commercial sale. We don’t apologize for our ignorance, because this is a problem that has – please excuse this overused expression – flown under the radar. (If you don’t believe this, go ahead and Google “illegal wildflower seeds,” “wildflower seed theft,” or similar keywords/phrases and see how many different instances of detection, arrest, or conviction have been reported in the print media or blogosphere.)
My own awareness of this problem can be traced to a widely-reported story about the recent sentencing of Cresencio Martinez-Guzman (44) and Cresencio Lucena-Alvarez (23), two undocumented aliens who pleaded guilty to Federal felony charges after being arrested in the Zion National Park backcountry several months ago with a large amount of illegally gathered Palmer’s penstemon wildflower seed pods in their possession. The men, who said they were paid $50 a day for the work, spent weeks gathering the pods. Authorities estimated that the 900 pounds of confiscated pods have a street value of about $25,000.
The incident is still under investigation, with additional arrests expected. Meanwhile, the two felons, who have been credited with three months time served and placed on probation, have agreed to be deported and promised not to reenter the United States illegally again.
The confiscated seed will be used for reseeding projects in Zion. Had this large batch of seeds made it out of the park, it would have been de-hulled, cleaned, and sold by commercial distributors, primarily for use in arid land highway landscaping and post-wildfire revegetation projects. The tall, showy-flowered Palmer’s penstemon (Penstemon palmeri) is very well-suited to that purpose because this short-lived plant grows fast, holds the soil in place, thrives in arid conditions, and grows in a variety of desert mountain habitats, including roadsides and washes, creosote shrublands, canyon floors, and juniper woodlands. Due to high demand, Palmer’s penstemon (aka balloon flower) fetches around $70 to $100 a pound. That’s toward the top end of the wildflower seeds price range, which begins at around $20 a pound.
Ironically, some of the seed illegally harvested in Zion might very well have ended up being sold to Federal agencies for use in reseeding projects on federal land. This paying-for-your-own-punishment fact almost certainly would have gone undetected, too. Commercial seed collecting is a legal, potentially quite lucrative activity on BLM land and national forest land. While seed vendors who buy bulk seed must insure that the collectors they deal with have valid collecting permits, they must take it on faith that the seed comes from the specified areas and not from national parks or other off-limits sites. The genetic testing that could certify a seed batch’s provenance is seldom done anywhere along the line because it’s just too time-consuming and expensive.
Kristin Legg, Zion’s chief of resource management and research, told me that there’s no reliable way to estimate the amount of wildflower seed theft going on in the 229 square-mile park, which has huge backcountry areas that are impossible to thoroughly patrol with just a half-dozen permanent LE rangers and some seasonals. Thieves like Martinez-Guzman and Lucena-Alvarez are so rarely caught in the act that officials can only guess at the extent of this illegal activity. However, the surprisingly large amount of wildflower seed confiscated in this incident suggests that much more seed theft may be going on in the park than was previously thought.
It’s likely to get worse before it gets better, too. Over the past couple of decades, commercial wildflower seed collecting has grown by leaps and bounds in southern Utah. In some years, the permits issued for the region’s BLM lands alone have authorized the collection of more than 20 tons of wildflower seeds.
Postscript: It's a good thing that Palmer’s penstemon seeds don't have to be counted individually. They run about 32,000 to the ounce.