Friday, January 31, 2014

Plant Theft In Our National Parks

Although I have been absent from this blog for some time due to my work as Managing Director at the Boxerwood Nature Center and Woodland Garden in Lexington, Virginia, I have been maintaining my attentiveness to what is happening in our Parks.

I was a bit concerned or perhaps even miffed when I discovered that the History Channel was introducing a new program entitled “Appalachian Outlaws.”  This series focuses on the lives of ginseng hunters working in the Southern Appalachians.  I could not help but think that this might increase the interest in “cash crops” and glorify those that pilfer these plants that grow wild on our protected lands.  I noted in the first episode of this series that one of the featured characters led the camera crew onto US Forest Service land to hunt ginseng illegally.  In one scene a Forest Service employee shows up and they have to run to escape.  That certainly added to the excitement and mystique of the show.

Ginseng has become hard to find in many areas.  On the show one of the characters states that this is the fault of the government putting so much land into protection as parks and forests.  During interviews with illegal ginseng hunters that were apprehended during my career we learned that they were moving to Virginia because you could not find ginseng in their states any more.  When asked why, their theory was that it was all hunted out in their home areas.  That is the impact on natural resources that these activities going unchecked can produce.

There are areas where hunting and collecting of ginseng is permitted and regulated in some instances by permits and seasons.  This legal activity is acceptable and approved by scientists and agencies.  The temptation of the money that could be made during our hard economic times fans the flames and intent of those willing to cross the line of legality and those forced by desperation to seek some profit.

I am not saying that what appears below is related to the new History Channel series, but does reflect what is happening in our parks.  This is an example of what is occurring and was taken from the National Park Service Morning Report dated January 31, 2014.

Cumberland Gap NHP
Six Ginseng Poachers Successfully Prosecuted
The fall ginseng season was busy at Cumberland Gap and rangers employed special shifts and focused patrols to combat poaching within the park. The government shutdown caused reduced staffing levels during the peak of the season, but rangers were able to apprehend six people and recover a total of 414 roots and one rattlesnake prior to the shutdown:  
  • August 19 – Rangers contacted two men on the Chadwell Gap Trail as they were about to be picked up at the trailhead. They were found with 18 and 78 ginseng roots respectively. Ranger Brad Cope was case agent.
  • September 15 – A man was observed capturing a rattlesnake on the Highway 58 road shoulder and being picked up by a vehicle.  Rangers stopped the vehicle, contacted the man, and discovered 11 ginseng roots in his pocket and the rattlesnake in the trunk. The vehicle’s occupants said that they had dropped him off at the Kentucky visitor center earlier in the day and that he had called them to pick him up in the Virginia section of the park.  Ranger Mike Ausmus was case agent.
  • September 23 – Rangers received information regarding possible digging in the Muddy Gut area of the park. They contacted two men who were found in possession of 39 and 37 ginseng roots respectively. Several of these roots in their possession were found to be marked with a dye and micro tags identifying them as coming from within the park. This was the first case since the park began its marking program in which marked ginseng was found on a suspect, positively identifying roots as taken from the park.  Ranger Ben Byrnes was case agent.
  • September 26 – Rangers received information regarding possible digging in the Old Baileytown Road area of the park. They contacted two men who were found in possession of 115 and 116 ginseng roots respectively. Ranger Greg Johnston was case agent.
 All six suspects pleaded guilty in federal court and were ordered to pay criminal fines totaling $1,295 and civil restitution to the park totaling $6,045.  All recovered ginseng roots were inventoried and replanted in the park by resource management personnel and will be monitored.   

[Greg A. Johnston, Park Ranger]


  1. It's rather sad that television helps glorify things like this. Here in NY, the state has a certification program, which also encourages owners of woodlots to grow it or allow it to grow naturally. It's illegal to take it from state lands, but people still do it.

  2. Television gives so many bad ideas to so many people. I wish we were less well connected.

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