A North Carolina man convicted four times for digging or possessing ginseng plants in Great Smoky Mountains National Park will spend 22 weeks in jail for his latest conviction.
Federal authorities say U.S. Magistrate Judge Dennis L. Howell sentenced Billy Joe Hurley, 46, of Bryson City, N.C., to serve five months and 15 days in jail for the illegal possession or harvesting of American ginseng from the park.
“Illegally harvesting American ginseng from federally protected land areas poses a serious danger to a plant that is part of our national heritage. It is also a crime, and my office will continue to work closely with National Park Service Rangers to prosecute poachers who profit from the illegal harvesting and sale of this endangered national resource,” said Anne M. Tompkins, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of North Carolina in a press release.
“Our rangers remain committed to protecting ginseng which is now locally threatened by poaching and recently placed on the North Carolina watch list for plants in peril due to exploitation,” said acting Chief Ranger Steve Kloster. “We are hopeful that this conviction will serve as a deterrent to others considering illegally taking this special resource.”
“I am proud of the rangers who work to protect ginseng from poachers,” said Acting Superintendent Cindy MacLeod. “Ginseng is a precious resource, a difficult plant to grow, and one that we have been using losing to illegal and unsustainable harvests as the forests are being robbed of younger and younger plants," added acting Superintendent Cindy MacLeod.
According to the sentencing hearing and filed documents, on June 28, 2014, Hurley admitted to illegally possessing 83 American ginseng roots he had illegally dug from areas in the the national park. Park staff replanted the recovered viable roots but estimate that, at best, 50 pecent of the replanted roots are likely to survive.
At the man's sentencing hearing, a Park Service botanist testified that the American ginseng species is under severe pressure from poachers in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and may not be sustainable if it continues to be harvested illegally. During the hearing, a special agent with of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also testified that financial gain is likely to continue to drive poachers and that fresh ginseng can bring up to $200 per pound on the black market.
In a separate case, on August 6, 2014, Christopher Ian Jacobson, 31, of Cosby, Tenn. was sentenced to 80 days in prison and was ordered to pay a $1,000 fine. Jacobson pleaded guilty to the illegal possession of 298 roots of ginseng, the U.S. attorneys office announced.
American ginseng is a native plant in the Smoky Mountains. These wild roots are also a highly prized tonic, particularly in Asian markets. Dried ginseng roots are used in medicines, teas, and other health products. American ginseng was recently placed in North Carolina’s Watch Category 5B, which includes generally widespread species that are in commercial demand and are often collected and sold in high volume. This category was created to bring attention to the issue, since such high volume collection is unsustainable in the long run.
Ginseng harvest in the park has always been illegal. It is legal to harvest ginseng outside the park on private lands or with a permit in certain Forest Service areas during the harvesting season. Park scientists have realized these slow-growing native plants could disappear because harvesting means taking the entire ginseng root. Each year law enforcement rangers seize between 500 and 1000 illegally poached ginseng roots. Over the years, park biologists have marked and replanted over 15,000 roots seized by law enforcement. Monitoring indicates that many of these roots have survived and are again thriving in these mountains.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office and the National Park Service remind the public that gathering ginseng on federal lands, such as the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is a federal crime. The Smokies are the largest fully protected reserve known for wild ginseng. This plant was formerly abundant throughout the eastern mountains, but due to overharvesting, populations have been significantly reduced to isolated patches. The roots poached in this park are usually young, between the ages of 5 and 10 years, and have not yet reached their full reproductive capacity. In time, the park’s populations might recover if poaching ceased.