06 September 2014

Ginseng Poachers Sentenced to Jail Time for Illegally Harvesting in the Smokies

It's been an Appalachian tradition as far back as Daniel Boone and has been used by American Indian tribes for even longer. Harvesting wild American ginseng has been commonplace in the mountains and the root has been used by medicine men and mountain folk to cure a host of ills, from colic and depression to indigestion and anxiety.

Ginseng roots are thought to look like the human form.
Billy Joe Hurley of Bryson City, NC and his brother Jeff are no strangers to the ginseng trade. Problem is, they're getting it from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and that's illegal.

The brothers have both served time for illegally poaching wild ginseng from the Smokies. Billy Joe has been sentenced at least four times in the last 10 years. And Jeff Hurley testified in court in 2013 that his family has a long history of digging ginseng from the mountains.

In April 2011, Billy Joe was caught with 554 roots and sentenced to 75 days in jail and had to pay over $5,000 in restitution. Brother Jeff got 14 days and had to pay about $2,500 in restitution. Then, just months later in October 2011, Billy Joe was caught poaching another 183 roots from the Great Smokies and sentenced to another 120 days in jail.

Authorities described Hurley in 2013 as down-on-his-luck and the money as just too tempting to stop the illegal behavior.

Billy Joe Hurley's most recent arrest, however, has netted him five and a half months in jail from U.S. Magistrate Judge Dennis Howell, according to an announcement by Anne Tompkins, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of North Carolina. Hurley admitted in June this year to digging up 83 American ginseng roots from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Although Park staff have replanted any viable roots, probably half of them won't survive. Years of poaching have depleted the plant and poachers are taking younger and younger plants as a result.

Ginseng is thought to be an "adaptogen"
that relieves stress, fatigue and thirst.
Ginseng poaching is partially fueled by an insatiable demand for American ginseng in Asia and the price can reach as much as $900 a pound or more. Asians treasure American ginseng for its medicinal properties. They have overharvested their own Asian ginseng and have driven up demand for the American variety.

American ginseng is native to the Smokies, where the wild roots have been put on North Carolina's Watch Category 5B, which includes species that are in high commercial demand and often collected and sold in high volume. Ginseng harvesting in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has always been illegal, but that hasn't stopped people from illegally poaching from 500 to 1,000 illegal roots every year.

"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," Tompkins said.

Acting Chief Ranger Steve Kloster said, "Our rangers remain committed to protecting ginseng which is now locally threatened by poaching ..." He said they hope Hurley's conviction and sentencing Aug. 28 will act as a deterrent to others considering illegally poaching ginseng.

Rangers are marking ginseng plants with dye and implanting microchips so that the illegal plants can be easily identified in an effort to curtail poaching.

Another man, Christopher Ian Jacobson of Cosby, TN, was sentenced on Aug. 6, 2014 to 80 days in prison for possessing 298 roots of ginseng. He was ordered to pay a $1,000 fine.

The U.S. Attorney's Office and the National Park Service reminded the public in their press release that gathering ginseng on federal lands, such as the Great Smokies, 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.

While the Smokies' ginseng is off-limits, there are ways to legally gather it. 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. 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.

To report illegal harvesting, call the Law Enforcement Desk of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park at 865-436-1230.

1 comment :

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