The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

Tragedy of the commons: Plant poaching persists in Smokies and other public lands

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Red TrilliumA red trillium is seen in the Southern Appalachians. It is often the target of poachers who aspire to place it in an ill-suited domestic ornamental garden. Courtesy Wiki Commons

Forest service withholds ginseng permits to protect native Southern Appalachian plants as overall poaching persists

Paul Super has a message for people who take plants and animals from Great Smoky Mountains National Park:

It’s stealing.

“We’re trying to protect the park as a complete ecosystem and as a place that people can enjoy the wildlife and everything that lives here … but they have to do it in a sustainable way, and poaching doesn’t fit,” said Super, the park’s resource coordinator.

“Be a good citizen. Enjoy the park without damaging it.”

Super said the novel coronavirus pandemic led to the second-highest visitation to the park in 2020, just over 12 million, even with the park being closed briefly.

“This year will likely have the highest visitation ever,” he said, adding that the park is, in terms of the pandemic, a “relatively safe place for family and friends.”

Super said this higher visitation rate may lead to more poaching but it may also lead to more people who “appreciate something that a poacher would take away from them.

“Besides being illegal, that’s just selfish and rude,” Super said regarding plants and animals, and even cultural artifacts that are taken from the park.

Super is the park’s research coordinator, and is in charge of recruiting researchers to help better understand the nuances and full ramifications of stealing public natural resources. He said his researchers don’t enforce the laws, but they do alert law enforcement rangers to poaching incidents and suspicions. 

“Our job is to protect all the resources in this park in such a way that people can continue to enjoy them in the future,” he said.

Super said people remove a range of plant species from Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which contains some of the most diverse ecosystems on Earth, on a regular basis, including some for ornamental gardens. Most domestic garden soil won’t satisfy the nutrition needs of poached native plants.

It is definitely not a problem limited to the Smokies. Poachers targeted lady slippers in Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area west of the Smokies last year, and galax is under persistent threat along the Blue Ridge to the east and northeast of the Smokies. 

Most wholesale poachers look for plants to sell as herbal supplements, domestically and overseas. Ginseng is the most targeted plant for poaching, not only in the Smokies but throughout the plant’s range, which includes the entire Appalachian chain.

american ginseng with fruitAmerican ginseng with fruit

American ginseng, prized for the supposed medicinal value of its roots since it was first harvested by the region’s native inhabitants, grows in cool, shaded forest areas such as those present throughout the Appalachian range and especially the Smokies.

It is under tremendous threat. A Forest Service ginseng study based in Western North Carolina concluded that many challenges to the protection of ginseng remain, mainly the four reasons quoted below:

— Restricting access is difficult. Functionally, ginseng is an open-access resource, even though it is not open-access in the legal sense.

— The harvest is rivalrous — once a wild ginseng plant is harvested, it is gone. ‘It’s not like hiking, for example,’ says (a researcher). ‘If I take a hike, you can still hike, too.’

— Ginseng plants face biological limits on reproduction. Plants must be at least five years old before they begin to reproduce. (Most commercial marine fish species reach reproductive maturity in less than two years and can produce large quantities of eggs each year).

— Harvest pressure is intense.

Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee and the nearby Nantahala and Pisgah national forests in North Carolina are no longer issuing American ginseng harvest permits this year. News releases from the forest service said declining populations of ginseng in the area prompted the decision.

“Every year we’ve seen fewer ginseng plants, and the danger is that they’ll completely disappear from this area,” said Gary Kauffman, the botanist for National Forests in North Carolina.

“We need to pause the harvest now to help ensure that these plants will be available in future years and for our grandkids and their kids.” Kauffman monitors plant levels and has worked with other organizations to reintroduce ginseng into the forest where the plant has been overharvested."

“In light of major declines in populations of ginseng, we feel it is necessary to put a hold on issuing any permits this year,” said Cherokee National Forest Supervisor JaSal Morris in the Cherokee National Forest news release. “It is our responsibility to ensure any harvesting of ginseng is sustainable.”

In response to declining populations, forests have been either restricting or eliminating permits for collecting medicinal herbs, especially ginseng, over the last 10 years.

“Unfortunately, restricted permitting has not reversed documented declines in ginseng populations,” according to the news release from Cherokee National Forest.

Most Tennessee state lands are closed to ginseng harvesting, including state parks, natural areas, state forests, and nearly all wildlife management areas, according to the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation .

Collecting ginseng in areas closed to harvesting is illegal and carries penalties and fines. It is also illegal to harvest ginseng on all National Park Service land. It is allowed to collect ginseng on private property, but individual states have regulations on reselling ginseng and its transport across state lines.

Ginseng is not the only plant that people poach in the Smokies, but Super said he did not want to specify other species because it might encourage people to seek them out. He said, however, that some poachers had stolen a species that was recently identified as new to science.

Unfortunately, there are entire field guides to native plants and herbs with medicinal and other uses available online.

There’s even an historical forest service document online that lists or describes more than 100 medicinal plants in Appalachia.

Commonly sought wild plants in the Southern Appalachians for ornamental purposes include columbine, lady slipper and trillium. 

Super warned that even taking pictures of plants and sharing them, with coordinates (which can be sometimes mined from individual posted digital photos), could lead to poaching. He shared the story of an intern who took a picture of a flower for Instagram, including the coordinates. Later the spot had a “rectangular hole in the ground.”

A contributor to a popular independent Facebook page devoted to the Smokies posted pictures of plants in full bloom that were later stolen from the area, according to the original poster.

Super again warned people on social media against sharing precise coordinates when posting pictures of specific plants or animals, including insects.

“Somehow, just not indicate where you are in the park,” he said.

Super said the park also contends with the poaching of wildlife species.

Some people hunt for beetles and butterflies to put in their collections. The Fish and Wildlife Service recently partnered with the park to catch a group that was poaching salamanders. This problem is not new. In the 1900s, he said, poachers eliminated some bird species because they stole their eggs.

Black bears have long been a target of illegal hunting within the park, with some poachers going so far as to establish complex bait stations in or near the park.

“We all own this park, everyone in the U.S., so it’s rather selfish to collect something that other people own so that other people can’t enjoy it,” Super said.


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