The recent indictment of a Lamont man on five counts of illegal ginseng trafficking highlights the temptations posed by a wild-growing root that fetches $700 a pound on international markets.
“The higher the price, the greater the potential for illegal harvest,” said Mark Loeschke, the Department of Natural Resources botanist who oversees the state’s wild ginseng, a forb/herb thought by many to have potent medicinal properties.
A lengthy multi-agency investigation resulted in a federal indictment of Jeff Sargent on charges that he bought and sold illegally obtained ginseng and that he conspired with others to do so.
Sargent and unnamed co-conspirators recruited others to buy harvest permits, and the co-conspirators then harvested ginseng under those permits and sold it to Sargent, according to the indictment, filed Jan. 16 in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa.
Neither state nor federal investigators would elaborate on the nature of the illegal activity, presumably because the ongoing investigation may lead to additional charges.
DNR conservation officer Mike Macke, who participated in the investigation, said the price of dried wild ginseng root has more than doubled in recent years, primarily because of booming economies in China and Korea, leading importers of American ginseng.
Each year Iowa, one of 19 states that permit hunting of wild ginseng, issues about 500 ginseng harvester permits, and Iowans annually export more than 1,000 pounds of dried ginseng root, Macke said.
“That doesn’t sound like a lot, but it takes between 125,000 and 150,000 plants to produce that weight,” he said.
The sustainability of ginseng, a slow-growing perennial that takes at least seven years to reach reproductive maturity, depends to a large extent upon the stewardship of harvesters.
State law requires, for example, that harvesters dig only mature plants, as evidenced by the number of leaf clusters and annual growth rings on the roots, and that they remove the seeds from the plant’s red berries and plant them nearby.
DNR conservation officers say Iowa has strong laws protecting ginseng but that enforcement is rendered difficult by the remote wooded areas in which ginseng grows and the secretive and stealthy nature of ginseng gatherers, both legal and illegal.
It’s hard to get a handle on the activities of solitary, camouflage-clad individuals operating far off the beaten path, they said.
Common ginseng-related violations include harvesting before the season, which runs from Sept. 1 to Oct. 31; harvesting immature plants, trespassing and and harvesting in proscribed areas, which include all state parks, preserves and recreation areas.
“Most of our state parks have already been picked clean,” Macke said.
DNR conservation officer Burt Walters, who collaborated in 2008 with Macke in a major rewrite of Iowa laws governing ginseng harvest and sales, said ginseng hunters often use hand-held GPS units to record waypoints of the areas in which ginseng grows.
But technology can be a two-edged sword, he said. Increasingly prevalent trail cameras deployed by deer hunters are capturing images of trespassing ginseng pickers, which can generate useful tips for law enforcement officers, Walters said.
Macke said the state tightened its ginseng-related laws to protect not only the plant itself but also the interests of conscientious, law-abiding ginseng hunters.
Sargent, who pled guilty In June 2009 to a violation of ginseng regulations, did not respond to an invitation to discuss the case.