ASHEVILLE, N.C. – U.S. Magistrate Judge Dennis L. Howell sentenced Billy Joe Hurley, 47, of Bryson City, N.C. for illegally possessing ginseng, announced Jill Westmoreland Rose, Acting U.S. Attorney for the Western District of North Carolina. Hurley was convicted at trial on Wednesday, August 12, 2015, and was ordered today to serve six months in jail for the illegal possession or harvesting of American ginseng from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Joe Pond, Acting Chief Ranger of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Cassius Cash, Superintendent of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park join Acting U.S. Attorney Rose in making today’s announcement.
“The illegal harvesting of American Ginseng poses a threat to this precious national resource and it is a crime our office takes very seriously,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Rose. “We will continue to work closely with the Rangers of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to protect wild ginseng from extinction and to prosecute those who profit from the illegal harvesting of ginseng roots.”
According to Acting Chief Ranger Pond, “Ginseng is a threatened natural resource, protected by law within Park boundaries. Unfortunately, Rangers are finding that poached ginseng roots seized during criminal investigations are younger than in years past, as older roots become much harder to find. This is not good for the viability of the plant. Rangers work extremely hard to thwart the efforts of those who steal from public lands and we hope that this case serves as a deterrent for anyone considering this activity.”
According to filed court documents and court proceedings, on June 28, 2015, in Swain County, Hurley Illegally possessed more than 500 American Ginseng roots he had illegally dug from areas in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Court records show that Hurley had filled a backpack with the roots and attempted to hide it behind a guardrail beside a hiking trail.
According to court records, in August 2014, Hurley was sentenced to five months and fifteen days in jail for the illegal possession or harvesting of American ginseng from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Today’s conviction marks Hurley’s fifth such conviction. Staff of the National Park Service replanted the recovered viable roots but estimate that at best, 50% of the replanted roots are likely to survive.
At Hurley’s 2014 sentencing hearing, a National Park Service botanist testified that the American ginseng species is under severe pressure from poachers in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and may not be sustainable if it continues to be harvested illegally. During that same hearing, a special agent with of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also testified that financial gain is likely to continue to drive poachers and that fresh ginseng can bring up to $200 per pound on the black market.
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American ginseng is a native plant in the Smoky Mountains. These wild roots are also a highly prized tonic, particularly in Asian markets. Dried ginseng roots are used in medicines, teas, and other health products. American ginseng was recently placed in North Carolina’s Watch Category 5B, which includes generally widespread species that are in commercial demand and are often collected and sold in high volume. This category was created to bring attention to the issue, since such high volume collection is unsustainable in the long run.
Ginseng harvest in the park has always been illegal. It is legal to harvest ginseng outside the park on private lands or with a permit in certain Forest Service areas during the harvesting season. Park scientists have realized these slow-growing native plants could disappear because harvesting means taking the entire ginseng root. Each year law enforcement rangers seize between 500 and 1000 illegally poached ginseng roots. Over the years, park biologists have marked and replanted over 15,000 roots seized by law enforcement. Monitoring indicates that many of these roots have survived and are again thriving in these mountains.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office and the National Park Service remind the public that gathering ginseng on federal lands, such as the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is a federal crime. The Smokies are the largest fully protected reserve known for wild ginseng. This plant was formerly abundant throughout the eastern mountains, but due to overharvesting, populations have been significantly reduced to isolated patches. The roots poached in this 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 ceases.
Hurley has been in custody since July 2015.
The investigation of the case was handled by Park Rangers of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Asheville handled the prosecution.
To report illegal harvesting activities of American ginseng within the Smokies, please call the Law Enforcement Desk of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park at 1-865-436-1230.