Editor's note: Ginseng, a plant whose dried roots are thought by some to have medicinal properties, grows wild in Shenandoah National Park, along the Blue Ridge Parkway, and in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It's illegal to harvest the plant in the parks, but that doesn't stop a black market force. Between September 20 and October 6, rangers in Shenandoah apprehended six separate groups involved in the illegal digging and taking of ginseng plants from the park. Eleven people were issued multiple mandatory citations and three others were arrested. One of those arrested is a commercial dealer in Virginia. A total of 185 plants were seized. At the Smokies, rangers employ various methods to deter ginseng theft, including the use of dyes and even microchips to track plants. Holly Scott, marketing director of Friends of the Smokies, recently wrote an article about ginseng theft for the Friends' newsletter, and we reprint it here with her permission for your information.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s ginseng poaching prevention program is equal parts science, conservation, and crime scene investigation. Over the last two years, Friends of the Smokies provided $10,000 to combat the illegal collection of wild American ginseng. Poaching is a major resource concern for Great Smoky Mountains National Park and harvesting is never permitted on park lands.
A thriving international trade in wild ginseng has existed for centuries; various cultures prize American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) for its medicinal qualities. Potential profits lead poachers to risk hefty fines and jail time as they destroy these sensitive native plants and their habitat.
Rangers are using an innovative approach to make poached ginseng unmistakable and undesirable to black market buyers who funnel roots to Asia. Smokies Chief Ranger Clay Jordan says that root-marking helps combat poaching. There are both covert and overt dyeing techniques which manifest themselves either immediately when the plants are illegally harvested or farther down the line when a poacher sells them to a buyer. Microscopic silicone chips embedded in the roots enable law enforcement officials to identify and trace ginseng from the Smokies.
This sophisticated scientific approach targets individuals connected the ginseng trade at different levels of the criminal enterprise. Jim Corbin, Western District Supervisor of the North Carolina Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services (NCDA&CS), has been involved in forest management for 20 years; protecting ginseng has been a concern of Jim’s for much longer. He helped establish the anti-poaching program in Great Smoky Mountains National Park more than a decade ago, and he credits Friends of the Smokies for helping to continue the program amidst scarce public funding in recent years. He thanked Friends of the Smokies for funding ginseng-marking blitzes.
NCDA&CS employees spent several days in the woods with law enforcement rangers and park biologists surveying and GPS-mapping large density ginseng populations, marking and DNA-sampling plants, and training new employees on how to identify and apprehend poachers. In 2011 park employees marked more than 1900 plants; the 2012 blitz set a record with more than 2700 marked plants, according to Jim Corbin.
Knoxville Garden Club president Anna Ford explained why their members contributed $2,000 to support the program, “We are so pleased that Friends of the Smokies is funding ginseng marking throughout the park. The Knoxville Garden Club, a member of the Garden Club of America, supports the park's program because the dye used to mark the ginseng root assists in controlling poaching of this native American plant. Poachers are unable to sell the marked ginseng and thus this helps in stopping the digging and destruction in our national park."
Park officials view ginseng as the natural resource most threatened as a result of harmful human activity; in some backcountry areas it has been totally eliminated. Poaching literally erases natural history, and tramples other organisms and sensitive plant communities.
Clay Jordan explained the importance of protecting American ginseng in the Smokies, “It is becoming more difficult to find and study natural relationships between living things absent of artificial influences.” Poaching erases the enormous scientific value in viewing these places as undisturbed ecosystems, he says.
In the words of Jim Corbin, “Eradicating cooperative species from cove forests affects the entire environment.”
Over the years park biologists have marked and replanted most of the 13,000 roots that law enforcement seized.
He added that habitual violators will go to any extent to poach this product in pursuit of financial gain.
Discover Life in America Executive Director Todd Witcher described American ginseng as a unique plant with a unique habitat, and said that animals like small mammals and birds depend on it as a protein-rich food source.
“There is not an unlimited supply. It is important to protect this species because of its human, animal, and ecosystem uses.”
The impact of these ginseng protection efforts is evidenced by numbers. Last year was one of the most successful for prosecuting poachers, with 11 indictments, and 1500 seized plants, including the arrest of two repeat poachers who had more than 800 roots in their possession.
In 2010, an investigation by United States Fish and Wildlife Service resulted in the conviction of Johnny Grooms of Cosby, Tennessee for multiple federal felony charges, including ginseng poaching, which carried the possibility of 20+ years in prison and $8,000,000 in fines for his various offenses. Some of the plants recovered during this investigation were marked in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. But 2012 has been a challenge.
According to Jim Corbin, the early onset of spring and the continued skyrocketing of ginseng values led to an increase in the volume of individuals collecting illegally. He described the trend as “frightening.”
Funding from Friends of the Smokies in 2011 and 2012, with help from the Knoxville Garden Club, is instrumental to continuing this successful natural resource protection program in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
According to Clay Jordan, programs like this which bring scientific experts and trained law enforcement officers to work side-by-side could be the future of conservation.
How You Can Help
If you would like to contribute to the protection of American ginseng in the Smokies, please call us at 800-845-5665 or send a gift to Friends of the Smokies, PO Box 1660, Kodak, TN 37764.