The Smoky Mountains are perhaps the largest fully protected reserve in the country for wild ginseng. The root is a valuable commodity, particularly in Asian markets, where it's used in medicines, teas and other health products. Reported reasons for ingesting the root include usage as an aphrodisiac or stimulant, type II diabetes treatment, and cure for sexual dysfunction.
But recently, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which covers parts of North Carolina and Tennessee, has been the target of illegal poachers, who sell the product on the black market, according to law enforcement officials.
Last week after a trial, a Bryson City man was sentenced to six months in a federal jail for illegal harvesting of the root. Billy Joe Hurley, 47, had dug up more than 500 ginseng roots from the park, stuffed them in a backpack, and then tried to hide it behind a guardrail beside a hiking trail.
During Hurley’s sentencing hearing, a special agent with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service testified that fresh ginseng can bring up to $200 per pound on the black market. A National Park Service botanist testified that the American ginseng species is under pressure from poachers and might not be sustainable if it continues to be harvested illegally.
According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Western District of North Carolina, ginseng was abundant in the park until poachers started uprooting it. Each year, officials say, rangers seize between 500 and 1000 illegally poached ginseng roots. Park scientists claim that if poaching continues, the root could become nonexistent. Hurley’s case marks the fifth conviction for illegal harvesting of the root. The National Park Service replanted about half of the roots Hurley stole.