CHEROKEE, N.C. — The first thing National Park Service Ranger Lamon Brown noticed was an illegal campsite, littered with food wrappers and marked by a smoldering fire ring.
Then the ranger spotted two figures skulking out of the dense forest near Andrews Bald in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Their hands were filthy. Their clothes were muddy. One toted a bulging backpack.
These were the Hurley boys, notorious for rustling wild ginseng roots, a federal crime in the park. Inside the backpack were 805 wild ginseng roots, resembling dirty wrinkled fingers and weighing in at a hefty 11.22 pounds — worth $600 a pound in local markets at the time.
Billy Joe and Jeffrey Hurley were later convicted, and more than 650 of the roots they had illegally harvested were replanted by park botanists. But even with the replanting program and vigilant rangers, the park is losing its battle against poachers. High ginseng demand and soaring prices have sent thieves tramping through the vast park to strip the landscape.
“We’re barely putting a dent in it,” said District Ranger Joe Pond, an enforcement officer who has chased ginseng poachers through the forest. “For every one we catch, at least 10 more get away.”
Demand is nearly insatiable in Asia, especially China, where wild ginseng is prized as a folk medicine, aphrodisiac, health tonic and all-around energy booster. The root is sold to China by licensed U.S. dealers, who also supply Chinatowns in cities such as New York and San Francisco with legal ginseng harvested by written permission on private land.
Asian users consider American wild ginseng (panax quinquefolius) far more potent than its cultivated alternative. Wild ginseng roots sell for $300 or $400 a dry pound in early summer, rising to $900 or more by fall. The price hit $1,200 a pound in 1998, triggering a poaching surge that continues today.
Wild ginseng grows in shaded, hilly terrain across much of the eastern United States, primarily in North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Georgia, Kentucky and West Virginia. It has a fabled history. Native Americans and colonialists used the roots for teas and tonics. Daniel Boone augmented his income by harvesting and selling ginseng. Fur trappers sold it on the side. As early as 1824, 750,000 pounds of ginseng were shipped from the U.S. to China.
Before the Smoky Mountains park was chartered by Congress in 1934, mountain people in the area legally harvested ginseng or grew it in home gardens. They called the roots “sweet bubby,” slang for “baby.”
The Park Service prohibits taking ginseng from Smoky Mountains park, but it does allow limited harvesting, with a permit, in the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests of North Carolina. To enforce the ban here, rangers use infrared and motion surveillance cameras. They often go undercover to cozy up to rustlers foraging for ginseng’s distinctive flat, multileafed prongs. Since 1992, the rangers in Smoky Mountains park have seized more than 13,000 stolen ginseng roots.
Jim Corbin, the park’s plant protection specialist, devised a combination of dye and silicon-coded chips to mark 40,000 wild ginseng plants in the park. The telltale markers, much like DNA in a murder case, have helped convict several rustlers — and licensed dealers who sell poached ginseng.
But even with these measures, poachers in the 521,000-acre park have steadily decimated once bountiful stocks of the valuable plant.
“There’s just a void in the landscape now,” said Janet Rock, a botanist who has worked at the park since 1989. “You used to see plenty of mature plants, but now they’re disappearing because of poachers.”
Thieves are left with smaller, younger plants. Two decades ago, about 25 roots weighed one pound. Today, it takes about 100 roots to make a pound.
The park has replanted about three-quarters of its confiscated ginseng roots in recent years. About half regenerate new plants, Rock said. A few have been poached all over again.
Poachers also illegally dig up galax (for floral wreaths), black cohosh and bloodroot (for herbal medicines), and other park plants. But nothing gets poached like ginseng.
“Ginseng is the money plant — there’s just no comparison with other plants,” Rock said.
Catching poachers is difficult in the densely wooded mountains of America’s most visited national park, which had 9.6 million visitors last year. A single ranger is responsible for 80,000 acres. And rangers have myriad responsibilities beyond ginseng enforcement — drug cases, traffic stops, rescues, illegal hunting and firefighting.
Five people were charged in federal court with illegal ginseng possession in the park in 2010, 11 in 2011 and five last year. Pond, the district ranger, said more arrests were likely by September, when poachers are attracted by higher prices as the growing season ends.
The most prolific poachers are hardy mountain residents like the Hurley brothers. Billy Joe lives a primitive existence in a tarp-covered shack near Bryson City on the park’s edge, according to Pond.
“Billy Joe is the best I’ve seen at his craft,” Pond said.
In federal court, Jeffrey Hurley testified that his family had a long history of digging ginseng.
“Bless your heart, Mr. Hurley. I sure wish you hadn’t done this,” federal Magistrate Judge Dennis L. Howell told him. “I just can’t have folks going out there and making money out of it and removing ginseng, because there’s not going to be any more.”
Billy Joe Hurley, caught with 554 roots, was sentenced in April 2011 to 75 days in jail and was ordered to pay $5,540 in restitution — $10 a root. Jeffrey Hurley was sentenced to 14 days in jail and $2,510 in restitution.
Park officials say the most successful poachers camp in the park for days, surviving on fish, berries or packaged food. Others are dropped off at dawn by a confederate, then picked up at sunset with ginseng in tow. They carry sharpened sticks to dig roots — never a telltale shovel.
In September 2011, Pond and Ranger Pete Walker, both in plainclothes, set up surveillance at a spot Walker knew had been used by poachers to meet their rides.
Sure enough, two men wearing camouflage pants with bulging cargo pockets stumbled out of the woods, dirty and sweaty. The men begged for a ride down the mountain. The rangers identified themselves and got permission to search the pair.
They found more than 280 ginseng roots in the men’s pockets. One root was marked with dye. The men were found guilty of ginseng poaching and sentenced to jail.
Arrests and jail are not always deterrents. “The hard-core poachers will go to jail, then be right back at it the next day because the money’s so good,” said Corbin, the plant protection specialist.
For instance, in October 2011, just months after the previous conviction, Billy Joe Hurley was charged with poaching 183 ginseng roots and sentenced to 120 days in jail.
So acute have the “dramatic declines” in wild ginseng become that the Forest Service earlier this year reduced legal harvest permits in the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests by 75% and cut the digging season in half. Each of the 136 permit-holders may harvest up to 3 wet pounds of ginseng in designated park areas during the first two weeks of September.
In the Smoky Mountains park, it took Corbin 15 minutes of climbing a densely wooded mountainside to locate a cove of wild ginseng growing near Mingus Mill. He leaned down to caress the leaves of several mature plants.
“Oh, beautiful!” he said as he spotted one plant. “That’s a Jim dandy!”
But as hard as he searched, he could not find a gorgeous, four-pronged specimen he had recently discovered. He wanted to show it to Ranger Pond.
Corbin stomped through the brush, past tree saplings trampled by rampaging elk and boars, and finally found the cove where he’d seen the ginseng. But the plant wasn’t there.
He had the look of a man who had just been told a friend had died.
“It’s gone,” he said. “Somebody got it.”