National Parks Look To Lock Out Wild Ginseng Diggers

Nov 22, 2014
Originally published on November 22, 2014 10:21 am

Digging for wild ginseng pays: It sells for thousands of dollars in overseas markets. But it is illegal to take ginseng from national parks, where authorities are working to thwart poachers.

They come to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and Jim Corbin, a plant protection specialist with North Carolina's agriculture department, is out to protect wild ginseng root from the poachers.

Ginseng is short – about shin height and has little red seeds, like tiny cranberries. Corbin, who spots some growing deep in the park, crouches down and digs his finger into the soil near the root, then pulls a spray can and a little jar of thick yellow powder out of his pocket. The powder is Corbin's anti-poaching technology. If someone digs up the root he's marked and tries to sell it, it'll glow under a black light, revealing that it was poached.

Park officials say Corbin's dye has helped convict 41 ginseng poachers in the last four years. One was Billy Joe Hurley. He pleaded guilty to his fourth poaching conviction earlier this fall and is serving five and a half months in federal prison.

Hurley's lawyer, Corey Atkins, is sympathetic to his client and other locals who do the same thing. "They're not out there robbing little old ladies. They're just trying to make a living doing something that they're really good at," Atkins says.

"If you grew up in the area in the South, you knew a lot of people who did it, and it wasn't necessarily seen as criminal," he says.

In fact, traditional diggers aren't the problem. Over the last couple of years, a new kind of digger has arrived on the scene, says Roddy Gabel with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. There's even a reality TV show about the medicinal root and those who dig for it.

"This newer craze you see sensationalized on television and stuff with people running out to make quick money digging ginseng — those sort of Johnny-come-lately diggers are not steeped in the tradition of the older ginseng diggers who have these good practices that their father or grandfather or whoever taught them. And that's the concern we have."

Good practices include waiting until fall, when plants have reproduced, and only harvesting plants older than five years old.

But the prize for wild ginseng is too tempting to wait.

"I paid almost up to $225 [per pound for fresh wild ginseng roots]," says Robert Eidus. He's one of 50 registered ginseng dealers in North Carolina.

He's the middle man between diggers and bigger dealers who export the roots to Hong Kong. "I'm selling the ginseng in bulk at $2,000 a pound.

"I'm just cashing in on what the Hong Kong Chinese are doing," he says.

He says those same plants will go for more than $20,000 in Hong Kong.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife numbers show a big jump in exports of wild ginseng between 2012 and 2013. Exports were up nearly 40 percent. Prices were more than $2,000 a kilo.

That's what Corbin is up against, but he says it's worth the effort to protect biodiversity here. "Well, you have to say that any time you remove any organism from a biome, you basically damage that biome, and yeah, I think it's worth it," he says.

Corbin says all he wants is for ginseng to be around for the next two or three generations.

Copyright 2014 WCQS-FM. To see more, visit http://www.wcqs.org.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. You know, these days there are reality shows about just about everything - ice road trucking, crab fishing, the Amish. And now to add to that list - people who dig for ginseng. Wild ginseng can sell for thousands of dollars in overseas markets, especially in Asia, but it is illegal to take the medicinal route from national parks. Greta Johnsen of member station WCQS in Asheville, North Carolina, reports on the fight against ginseng poaching.

GRETA JOHNSEN, BYLINE: There are no flat paths in this great part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Wild ginseng thrives in shady spots like this where foliage is dense with bushes and trees and briars.

Ooh - ow.

JIM CORBIN: That'll bite you. I should've warned you.

JOHNSEN: That's Jim Corbin, a plant protection specialist with the state's agricultural department. He's out to protect ginseng from poachers who come in to the park to dig up ginseng root, which is a federal crime. He leads me through the woods for about half an hour before we spot our first plant.

CORBIN: There's one. We did luck out, didn't we? You know what ginseng roots are?

JOHNSEN: It's short, up to our shins, and has little red seeds like tiny cranberries. Corbin crouches down and digs his finger into the soil near the root, then pulls a spray can and a little jar of thick, yellow powder out of his pocket.

CORBIN: It also puts a glue - stick 'em on it so the chips will seat on there. And then that color will stain that.

JOHNSEN: That powder is Corbin's anti-poaching technology. So if someone digs up the root he's marked and tries to sell it, it'll glow under a black light, revealing it was poached. Park officials say Corbin's dye has helped convict 41 ginseng poachers in the last four years. One was Billy Joe Hurley. He pled guilty to his fourth poaching conviction earlier this fall. He's serving five and a half months in federal prison. Hurley's lawyer, Corey Atkins, is sympathetic to his client and other locals who do the same thing.

COREY ATKINS: They're not out there robbing little old ladies. They're just trying to make a living doing something that they're really good at.

JOHNSEN: Atkins says ginseng digging is an Appalachian tradition.

ATKINS: If you grew up in this area in the South, you knew a lot of people that did it. And it wasn't necessarily seen as criminal.

JOHNSEN: And traditional diggers aren't the problem. Over the last couple of years, a new kind of digger has arrived on the scene, says Roddy Gabel with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

RODDY GABEL: This newer sort of craze that we see sensationalized on television and stuff with people running out to make quick money digging ginseng - those sort of Johnny-come-lately diggers are not steeped in the tradition of the older ginseng diggers who have these good practices that their father or grandfather or whoever taught them. And that's the concern we have.

JOHNSEN: Good practices include waiting until fall, when plants have reproduced, and only harvesting plants older than five years old. But the prize for wild ginseng is too tempting to wait.

ROBERT EIDUS: Well, I paid almost up to 225.

JOHNSEN: That's Robert Eidus. He's one of 50 registered ginseng dealers in North Carolina. He's the middle man between diggers and bigger dealers who export the roots to Hong Kong. That 225 is the dollars he'll pay per pound for fresh wild ginseng roots.

EIDUS: I'm selling the ginseng in bulk at $2,000 a pound.

JOHNSEN: That's a good markup, sir.

EIDUS: Well, it is. You see, I'm just cashing in on what the Hong Kong Chinese are doing.

JOHNSEN: He says those same plants will go for more than $20,000 in Hong Kong. U.S. Fish and Wildlife numbers show a big jump in exports of wild ginseng between 2012 and 2013. Prices were more than $2,000 a kilo, and exports were up nearly 40 percent. That's what Corbin is up against. As the ginseng guardian drives through the mountains, out of the park, after another days' work marking ginseng roots, he says his efforts are about protecting the biodiversity here.

CORBIN: Well, you have to say any time you remove any organism from a biome, you basically damage that biome, and yeah, I think it's worth it.

JOHNSEN: He says all he wants is for ginseng to be around for the next two or three generations. For NPR News, I'm Greta Johnsen. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.