Harvesting lucrative plant still illegal in Smokies
By JOEL DAVIS | (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Although gathering ginseng is permitted in two areas of the state, it remains a crime on federal lands such as the Blue Ridge Parkway and Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
There are only two public areas where gathering ginseng is allowed with a proper permit in Tennessee: the North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area and the Cherokee National Forest.
Confusion can result from the fact that harvesting is allowed on those lands managed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service and not on National Park Service lands.
“(Ginseng harvesters) are not allowed in the Park,” GSMNP spokeswoman Molly Schroer said. “A lot of people don’t differentiate between the various federal agencies, but the missions are a little bit different. There are some differences between the agencies that allow or disallow for those type of activities.”
The Smokies are the largest fully-protected reserve known for wild ginseng. The plant was formerly abundant throughout the eastern mountains, but due to repeated poaching, populations have been reduced to a point that they can barely reproduce. The roots poached in the 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, according to information from the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Harvesting the plant can be a lucrative business. In the international and domestic legal trade market, during 2011, wild ginseng was bringing between $500 and $800 per pound of dried roots.
As such, the Smokies can draw poachers looking for easy money. Four North Carolina men were sentenced in separate cases in U.S. District Court for the illegal possession or harvesting of American ginseng from the Park in October 2011.
Elsewhere in the state, ginseng seems to be faring better, said Andrea Bishop, recovery biologist and ginseng coordinator with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.
“As far as we can tell, it’s remaining pretty stable,” she said. “We just base that on the harvest. We do some monitoring of natural populations, but we really should do more.”
State Law changed
According to TDEC, state law concerning ginseng gather recently changed. Effective July 1, Tennessee’s ginseng harvest law was amended to change the harvest season for wild ginseng to Sept. 1 through Dec. 31.
To coincide with the harvest season change, the ginseng buying season also officially began Sept. 1. Previously, wild ginseng roots could be harvested beginning Aug. 15, which was based on the time of year the ginseng fruit or “berries” ripen.
The original law’s language (T.C.A § 70-8-204) was also amended to state that it is unlawful for any person to knowingly dig, harvest, collect or remove wild ginseng from any land that such person does not own on any date not within the wild harvest season.
“Over the years it has been shown that Aug. 15 is too early for the wild ginseng fruits to be fully ripened and the original season had the potential to be detrimental to the survival of this particular species,” said David Lincicome, a manager with TDEC’s natural heritage and rare plant recovery program.
Harvesters are still required by law to replant the fruits when the plant or root is harvested for long-term sustainability.
The new law and rule changes were encouraged by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for the 19 states approved to export wild American ginseng in an effort to have consistent regulations across the states and to better assess the exportation of wild American ginseng and the long-term survival of the species.
As part of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, TDEC regulates the export of wild ginseng by issuing a license for its purchase, sale and exportation. Licensed ginseng dealers are required to submit an annual report of all transactions to TDEC.