The Fight Against Ginseng Poaching in the Great Smoky Mountains

A profitable black market for the native shrub pits the National Park Service against poor residents of Appalachia

Ginseng roots
Ginseng roots NPS Photo

This winter, amid the news of the FBI’s arrest of the remaining occupiers of a national wildlife refuge in Oregon, another story unfolded more quietly in the Appalachians. At the heart of it were a small plant that plays a significant role in eastern mountain forests - American ginseng - and Billy Joe Hurley, a North Carolina man who had just been released from prison for stealing ginseng plants from Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Hurley, 47, has been convicted at least five times, stretching back nearly two decades. While ordinarily such a case would be the stuff of the local paper’s police blotter, Hurley’s malfeasance is unusual, garnering national coverage, both because American ginseng roots fetch high prices in Asian markets – hundreds of dollars a pound—and the oddity of a plant heist resulting in a prison sentence.

In the Appalachians, ginseng hunting is a centuries-old tradition. Prized for its medicinal use in Native American medicine, American ginseng drew the interest of a French missionary in Canada in 1715. Helped by the Iroquois community near Montreal, the priest discovered the connection between the American species and Asian ginseng, one of the best-documented plants in Chinese medicine, used for centuries as an “adaptogen” – basically an immune-system stabilizer. When the French realized that the two ginsengs were similar, they shipped the dried American roots to China, where buyers confirmed their interest and the French realized a handsome profit. (Chinese medicine found a slightly different use for the American ginseng – a “cooling” stabilizer distinct from the “warming” effect of Asian ginseng.)

In this early case of globalization, ginseng became one of America’s first exports to the Far East. All through the 1700s, ginseng harvesting for the China trade was a feature of mountain life. Daniel Boone collected the plant along the Ohio River’s banks, and George Washington wrote in his diary of encountering ginseng traders hauling ginseng roots in Virginia’s mountains. The shrub thrived on slopes like the Great Smokies. Naturalist William Bartram wrote in 1791, “The Cherokees speak of the plant as a sentient being, able to make itself invisible to those unworthy to gather it.”

“Ginsenging” as the practice of ginseng hunting is called, has been a way of life for poorer mountain families for generations. From Georgia to the Catskills, but especially in the South, people took ginseng they found in the wild and sold the roots to dealers and middlemen who wholesaled and shipped them to Asia. Few made real money.

Attempts to domesticate and cultivate ginseng have fallen mostly flat, as the market has placed a much higher value on wild plants from the forest. With large swaths of ginseng’s forest habitat having been lost to private development and farming in the past century, the plant has become scarcer. This, in turn, also makes the wild crop even more valuable, creating a vicious cycle of high prices driving people to “hunt” the plant deeper in the wild, leading it to be still more endangered.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a labyrinth two-thirds the size of Rhode Island, with vast, old-growth forests that contain a spectacular array of tree and undergrowth species. Jungle-like walls of rhododendron guard the more remote ginseng patches. In the park’s ecosystem, according to National Park Service botanist Janet Rock, ginseng plays the role of indicating habitat health. Because the plant is finicky - the opposite of a weed, basically - it can signal a healthy mix of tree species, understory and forest composition. It’s the “canary in a coal mine” of forest health. If ginseng disappears here, the impact goes beyond the lost berries and leaves that are a food source for wildlife. Its loss means a forest’s immune system is stretched that much further away from health.

The history of the park and its creation in the 1930s still stings for some who feel their grandparents were swindled out of their land through eminent domain to establish what is now America’s most visited park. Congress had authorized the park in 1926, in part to protect the region’s forests from logging companies, but had no money to create it until President Franklin Roosevelt made it a priority. The Park Service negotiated the purchases through state agencies, buying tracts, one by one, from 18 timber and mining companies and 1,100 small landowners, according to historian Anne Whisant. For some families, the chance was a boon in the Depression’s darkest days to sell homesteads that were too steep for crops and far from schools and clinics. A few descendants today use that grudge to justify taking ginseng from the park. But for most, like Hurley, “ginsenging,” is a tradition handed down one generation to the next.

“He’s pretty much thrown the system out the window,” says Jim Corbin, a biologist who advises parks on ginseng conservation and enforcement. Corbin has a history with Hurley; more than a decade ago Corbin invented a method for detecting ginseng theft using root dye. Since then Corbin has seen Hurley in the courthouse regularly, and Corbin’s dyed roots have contributed evidence to most of Hurley’s poaching convictions.

In recent years, a number of people arrested for ginseng thefts in the Great Smokies couldn’t afford a lawyer and received an attorney appointed by the court system. Corey Atkins, Hurley’s attorney from Asheville, North Carolina, started accepting court-appointed cases five years ago. Since then he has represented a half dozen other ginseng poachers, and defended Hurley several times. “Billy Joe is the most notorious,” Atkins says. “He’s the one everybody knows.”

It’s perfectly legal to gather ginseng on private land, but it’s illegal to take plants from the park to sell them.

The park rangers who arrested Hurley and others for ginseng poaching, and the judges who convicted them, have been working to raise respect for laws governing endangered plants, laws that rarely have teeth. That group includes Rock, who has monitored ginseng and other species in the Great Smokies for over two decades. 

She has seen the Hurley drama at close range. Since 1992, Rock and her lab have received from park rangers more than 15,000 illegally harvested ginseng roots. When the seized roots are forfeited, she and her colleagues replant them back to where they originally grew; they’ve successfully replanted about half of what’s been confiscated. But with poachers like Hurley, protecting the plants is a formidable struggle.

Few other species get stolen. The past year saw a spike in log moss for the flower market, and the disappearance of 60 pounds of chanterelles but, says Rock, “The moneymaker is the ginseng.”

In summer, the low shrub’s bright red berries appear, but the “hunting season” is in the fall, with dates that vary by state regulation. Where harvesting is legal, basically what you see is the occasional man or woman out in the woods, studying the landscape for clues of a small shrub that looks like poison oak. Ginseng devotees keep the whereabouts of their patches very close, because taking your neighbor’s ginseng is almost part of the tradition. As the foliage turns color, ginseng leaves turn a distinctive shade of yellow. When the leaves from the trees above fall, it becomes impossible to find. The uninitiated can wander the woods for days without spotting a ginseng plant.

Environmental advocates say that jailing poachers sends a message and can prevent them from doing damage during the growing season. Hurley’s arrest last June took him out of the park early and limited his damage last year. That makes a difference  - especially since his habits, according to Corbin, have changed over the years: instead of taking isolated ginseng patches, Hurley has taken to sweeping the ginseng in an entire watershed. “He’s doing tremendous damage to the resource,” says Corbin.

Rock says that a repeat offender like Hurley is an anomaly. Some say ginseng hunting is the only thing Hurley does well. “He likes being in the woods,” Corbin says. “I think he realized he could make enough money to support his other habits.” They both say he’s making a calculation.

Corbin speculates the calculation is basic: poverty vs. prison – “three square meals and a warm bed.”

That calculation gets to one truth: the law hits some poor families harder. Atkins’ clients include Latino laborers with no English and young women drawn into the trade. Another truth is that if poachers like Hurley aren’t stopped, they could wipe out an irreplaceable piece of our shared heritage.

Most times Hurley has been caught red-handed, sometimes with hundreds of ginseng roots in his pocket. Typically he pled guilty and paid the fine. A few years back, the usual scenario played out. According to Rock, a ranger heard that Hurley was seen by the road near a particular ridge and was heading down toward Nolan Creek. The ranger tracked him down the slope and found Hurley with 800 roots in his bag. Rock and her helpers replanted 600 of the plants – and they were soon poached again.

Usually Hurley appears at his trial with little to say as Rock gives testimony. She would tell the court about plant’s situation in the park, and how it’s threatened throughout its natural range in North America, and subject to the international treaty governing endangered species, CITES. “I’ve seen him in court and I’ve been expert witness against him,” Rock says of Hurley. “He just sits there, sometimes growls a bit.”

The recent case was different. When he was arrested, the 500 roots weren’t in Hurley’s hands – they were in a backpack found near the trail where he and his brother were seen leaving the woods. Atkins called the evidence circumstantial, but thanks to Corbin’s method of marking ginseng plants inside the park, experts could confirm the plants in the backpack came from within the park.

Ginseng poaching is a misdemeanor, which means no jury trial, but starting about 12 years ago, the crime carried a sentence of up to six months imprisonment. The judge determined the evidence compelling enough to find Hurley guilty, and an appeals judge agreed.

As in previous arrests, Janet Rock’s lab handled the roots seized in Hurley’s case, and replanted them in the forest.

Apart from its struggle to keep Hurley in check, however, the Park Service has faced other hindrances as well. Two – yes, two – national television series have featured ginseng poaching: “Appalachian Outlaws” on the History Channel, and “Smoky Mountain Money” on National Geographic. These shows, Rock says, “are so exaggerated. It really hasn’t helped.” She says the programs have simply encouraged poachers.

The good news for ginseng is there’s been an increase in growing it on private land, where a method known as “simulated wild” aims to use existing forest canopy and low tillage to foster the plants as if they’d grow in the wild. This is both better for the root’s market value and for the forest habitat, especially with legal harvests of actually wild ginseng falling by about one-third in the last six years.

Technology has also brought more hope to the anti-poaching force. There are several apps for how to grow ginseng, and GPS has made it easier for botanists and law enforcement to find and protect ginseng patches. “Now we have a database of cases that can be tracked by rangers. It allows us to graph the information and summarize by watershed and location,” says Rock. She can print updated charts on park letterhead and keep prosecutors informed and share with the judge as a case goes to trial.

It may be that the media surrounding Hurley’s prison terms have deterred local ginsengers near the park, even if the national TV shows have stirred up opportunists with misconceptions. “Everybody thinks it’s a get-rich-quick deal,” says Corbin.

Billy Joe Hurley offers a strong corrective to that notion.

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