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Ginseng Poachers Nabbed at Cumberland Gap National Historical Park

apprehension of the plant poachers

The apprehension of the ginseng poachers at Cumberland Gap. NPS photo.

Illegal digging of wild ginseng continues to be a problem around the country, but alert work by rangers at Cumberland Gap National Historical Park resulted in the apprehension of three men who were engaged in a significant ginseng poaching operation in the park.

Cumberland Gap National Historical Park is located at the point where the narrow tip of western Virginia juts into Kentucky and Tennessee. This tri-state region is steeped in history—the "Gap" has been an important travel route for centuries—but the rugged area also provides the right environment for ginseng, a plant whose roots are prized by the herbal medicine industry.

According to a park report,

On September 16th, ranger Brad Cope came upon a vehicle parked adjacent to the park boundary in an area known for ginseng poaching. The vehicle was registered to a man who was suspected of ginseng poaching from prior contacts in the park.

Rangers launched an operation that consisted of covert surveillance on the vehicle and park boundary, an undercover vehicle, and a take-down vehicle. Three men walked out of the park boundary and placed a backpack in the trunk of the vehicle, which was stopped about a half mile down the road.

The three men, identified as Mark Seals, Todd Reynolds and Bryan England, were interviewed and provided conflicting information on their activities. All three had evidence of digging on their clothing and hands. Rangers conducted a search of the vehicle and found the backpack in the trunk with approximately 401 ginseng roots in three separate bags. They also discovered three large screwdrivers used to dig up the roots and a walking stick.

In-depth interviews revealed that the three men were digging and collected all the ginseng that they could find in the park. They also provided a wealth of information regarding past activities, describing the number of plants and dollar amounts on what they had earned from digging in the park. The green ginseng roots weighed approximately three pounds.

What's the attraction for ginseng?

There's a thriving world-wide market for ginseng roots, and thus plenty of opportunities for commercial production of the plant. Roots from older plants command higher prices, it takes several years for plants to mature and produce seeks, and roots which appear to come from "wild" sources are deemed especially valuable by processors.

Those economic factors lead some to resort to raiding natural areas such as national parks for mature wild plants rather than taking the time and trouble to raise their own. It's a problem described in a previous article on the Traveler, and the poachers are hitting private landowners as well as parks. An article in an Ohio newspaper earlier this month described the apprehension of two men who had illegally dug a number of plants from a wooded area in that state.

Authorities at Great Smoky Mountains National Park obtained a conviction earlier this year for a case in that park, and a comment on the case by Chief Ranger Bill Wright explains why rangers are so concerned about illegal digging of the plants.

"Ginseng is now becoming rare in the wild, with the possibility of extinction, so the protection of these resources becomes ever more critical. Many areas that used to sustain patches of wild ginseng have been harvested to the point that the more mature plants (five years of age and older) that normally reseed the populations are totally gone, and the younger plants are not mature enough to reseed."

Ginseng isn't the only plant being targeted by illegal harvesters, and a case earlier this year at the Blue Ridge Parkway resulted in a conviction last week.

On Friday, June 17, rangers at the Blue Ridge Parkway received a report that a man had been seen taking a backpack out of the trunk of his car, and the individual making the report noted that the trunk was full of live plants. That situation certainly fit into the "something doesn't look right" category, and rangers were notified.

Ranger Miranda Cook waited for the man to return to his car, contacted him, and found that his pack was full of plants and digging tools. Ranger Kathryn Brett assisted with the investigation and interview, and they determined that the man had stolen several plants from six locations along the parkway. He planned to sell seeds from those plants as part of his overseas business.

On September 17th, the man pled guilty in federal court and was ordered to pay a significant fine and restitution.


I remember the Travel Channel had a show called Cash & Treasures with one episode on the digging of wild American ginseng.

However - they did this in a Forest Service area somewhere in West Virginia and the show specifically mentioned that they got harvesting permits before they set out.

An ancestor of mine was a Zhang (what they called ginseng) hunter in the Smokey Mountains, to supplement his coal mining work. It probably wasn't illegal back then. I wonder if the current ecomony had anything to do with the current poaching of these individuals.

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