While ginseng can legally be harvested from the national forests, there are several restrictions. The roots can only be dug at certain times of year, there’s a limit on how many you can take, and only larger roots can be taken. Ginseng diggers must also have a permit.
So far this year, Forest Service officials caught and arrested nine people for illegally possessing ginseng. The average ginseng poacher was caught with 25 roots and ultimately spent about two weeks in jail. This year, the forest has seen a sharp increase in violations issued to plant poachers over previous years.
Conservationists, botanists and others are concerned about the decline of ginseng populations, and poaching may eventually cause harvests to be restricted.
Ginseng root has been favored as a tonic with exports to East Asia for the past two-and-a-half centuries. In North Carolina, the plant primarily occurs in the mountains. The Forest Service continues to monitor the harvest in the national forests in North Carolina to ensure the future viability of the plant.
Removing any plant or its parts from national forest land without a permit or outside of the legal harvest season is considered theft. Every national forest plant is public property, which means plant thieves are robbing all citizens of a resource that is collectively owned. Penalties for plant poaching may include a fine up to $5,000 or six-month sentence in federal prison, or both.
“Unfortunately, not everyone respects the rules, and there are times when we need to take action. In recent years, the punishment for ginseng poaching has included up to 30 days in jail for a first-time, misdemeanor offense in some Western North Carolina cases,” said Bail. “Poachers need to understand that the federal courts are taking plant theft, as well as wildlife poaching, very seriously and that the penalties for such acts may be harsh.”
Visitors to the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests must obtain a permit to collect ginseng during the designated harvest season, which runs Sept. 1 through 30. Ginseng permits cost $40 per wet pound. An individual may purchase up to three wet pounds annually although harvest is prohibited in Wilderness and Natural Areas.