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On The Trail Of Poachers

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No wonder ginseng and other popular herbs are being stolen from our national parks

The lush coves and dark hollows of the southern Appalachians have served as an herbal pharmacy for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Many of the herbal remedies used today were handed down from the region's Cherokee Indians, who used ginseng for dysentery and headaches, goldenseal for ulcers and arrow wounds, and black cohosh for snakebite and menstrual pain, to name just a few ailments.

A chance of discovery in the early 1700's led to the China connection, when the two Jesuit priests - one in Canada and one in China - realize dthat American ginseng was closely related to the much-sought-after Asian ginseng, a plant the Chinese had already dug to near extinction. The first boatload of North American ginseng roots to reach China brought an astounding $5 a pound. A steady trade ensued. In 1773 once ship out of Boston sold 55 tons of roots in China for $330,000. John Jacob Astor traded not just furs but ginseng, too. Even Danial Boone, the legendary frontiersman, dug the root. In 1878 he lost a small fortune when a boat carrying 15 tons of his genseng capsized in the Ohio River. By the mid-1800's wilde ginseng was such a staple that agriculture records for it were kept along with those for corn, hogs, and tobacco.

Most ginseng products sold in the United States today are made from cultivated ginseng and are ecologially benign to consume. American farmers grew nearly 2.4 million pounds in 1997; more than 2 million pounds were grown in Wisconsin alone. The cultivated roots look more like pale white carrots than their gnarled wild counterparts. This uniformity drops the price growers get to about $15 per poound, although the plant's active ingredients are nearly identical to those in the wild variety. Wild roots are dug in 20 states, but those taken from the mountains of Kentucky, West Virginia, and North Carolina are the most highly prized because of their age, gnarled appearance, and alleged potency.

Digging regulations vary slightly from state to state, but most allow digging only in the fall, after ginseng seeds have dropped. In North Carolina, the state with the toughest laws, digging is allowed on private land from September 1 to April 1 with the landowner's permission and in national forests with the proper permit. Fines for digging out of season range from $100 to $1,000, though poaching is common and convictions are rare. In the past two years some 40 diggers and 5 dealers in North Carolina have been convicted of ginseng violations. Most of those were fined less than $200, but in 1997 a repeat offender received a six-month jail term and was banned from Great Smoky Moutains National Park for life.

Few places have been harder hit by herb poachers than this park, a densely forested mountain wonderland covering more than 800 square miles of prime herb habitat on the Tenessee - North Carolina border. Nearly 1,600 vascular plant species grow there, and removing any is strictly forbidden. Even so, poachers have picked the park nearly clean of ginseng. It's one of those things that's not going to stop until it's all gone. Most people don't understand the problem here, and ginseng roots don't write their congressman.

Some poachers are locals, others from as far away as Florida. But the park's rangers try to stay ahead of them. Recently they've begun using a high-tech marking system on the park's remining ginseng. Rangers have confiscated more than 10,000 ginseng roots from diggers and dealers since 1992, most of which they've replanted in the park. Some are just a year old, barely an inch long and thinner than a pencil. The age of the scrawny plants especially worries the park's rangers, because ginseng doesn't produce mature seeds until its seventh or eighth year. In the wild, ginseng lives 8 to 10 years before being dug; the roots can grow up to six inches long and get as fat as the handle of a baseball bat. The intricate shapes command mystical reverence in certain ginseng circles. The American public needs to know that rhinos aren't the only thing being poached. There are plants out there that are extremly rare. If you can't protect what's in the park, how are you going to protect what's outside the park?

That question has long vexed Gary Kauffman, a botanist for the nearby Nantahala National Forest, where it is legal, with a permit, to dig ginseng. Although, pound for pound, medical plants can be more valuable than timber, they've been virtually ignored by national forest managers. Diggers need only a $30 permit to collect a pound of ginseng in the 550,000-acre national forest, and no one keeps track of how much gets collected. Some diggers don't even bother to buy permits. "We've not done a very good job of tracking the harvest," Kauffman admits. "We might be catching 50 percent of what's being dug, but it's hard to tell."

Ginseng isn't the only native medicinal plant that's being snapped up today. Americans spent roughly $4 billion on herbal supplements in 1998, an 11 percent increase from the previous year. Once the domain of health food stores and New Age herbalists, the natural-remedy craze has prompted mainstream drug and vitamin giants like Bayer, WarnerLanbert, and American Home Products to leap into the lucrative field. Unlike pharmaceutical drugs, which must meet strict Food and Drug Administration standards for safety and efficacy, or even processed foods, which have to meet standards of purity, herbal remedies get virtually no federal oversight. There are no guarantees that the ginseng tablets you buy have any ginseng at all in them, much less have any healthful effect. What's more, the jury is still out on whether ginseng is God's gift to humanity or the greatest snake oil ever invented.

What seems certain is that the huge market for herbal remedies such as goldenseal and echinacea is taking its toll on some of the country's rarest and most valuable plant species. Tim Blakley, a 22-year veteran of the herb trade and now manager of the National Center for the Preservation of Medicinal Herbs, in Meigs County, Ohio, estimates that about 20 wild species are particularly at risk.

Blakley's fears have echoes throughout the close-knit community of herbalists and natural healers, who have noticed many of their favorite plants vanishing from the woods. "We are trying to get the industry to realize that long-term growth is not going to happen if it continues to get materials from the wild," says Liebmann of United Plant Savers, whose group has identified 20 medical herbs it considers "at risk," and has placed 24 others on its "to watch" list. Liebmann estimates that development, agriculture, and poor logging practices contribute to the destruction of 2,000 acres of herb habitat each day.

For most ginseng growers, the biggest threat is insects or disease. But in rural Appalchia, it's theft. In 1996, when wild ginseng prices hit $500 a pound, a new wave of diggers took to the woods, making quick work of the most accessible patches. Not surprisingly, most ginseng growers in this region are as media-shy as moonshiners. "People are as bad as bank robbers when it comes to 'sang," says Tony Elkins, a veteran ginseng digger from Franklin. Elkins no longer sells ginseng, but he replants any roots he finds near his home. His hounds keep a close watch on his ginseng patch, unleashing ferocious barks when anyone comes near. His neighbor Toby Mason is also protective of his ginseng. Both men view their patches as tantamount to herbal IRA's, hedges against the pell-mell poaching.

"One day when it's all gone, I reckon I'll have something," says the soft-spoken Mason, who says he digs 300 to 400 plants a year. "I go on Forest Service land sometimes, but you won't find much. Anywhere people can get to regularly, they will get it."

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