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Protecting the 'mountain gold,' Virginia cracks down on illegal ginseng harvesting

Conservation officers highlight the risks of illegal ginseng harvesting

WYTHE COUNTY, Va. – Police in the Appalachian Mountains are learning more about ginseng as the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries raises awareness about illegal harvesting.

The valuable plant, also known as mountain gold, is now considered endangered. Experts say it's being over-harvested and shipped overseas.

Ginseng grows wild throughout the Appalachian Mountains and if you know what you're looking for, it can be easy to find.

The plant can also be worth quite a bit of money. As of this week, a dried pound of ginseng is selling for $325. When supply is low internationally, it can sell for more than $1,000.

Known for its medicinal uses, ginseng is valued for health benefits like lowering blood sugar, boosting energy, reducing stress, and treating diabetes.

While it is legal to harvest or grow ginseng in your own backyard, it's the rise of illegal harvesting that's putting wild ginseng at risk of becoming extinct.

James Brooks, a senior conservation officer with the VDGIF, has been with the department for 15 years. He says he's seen a big rise in illegal harvesting, especially over the past few years, thanks to social media, YouTube videos and TV shows that detail illegal ginseng harvesting.

"It's always been there and people have always dug it," says Brooks. "Recently it's been categorized to a threatened species, which draws more laws and has led to more laws being passed because of that."

Some of those laws include a designated harvesting season. For people who are harvesting ginseng legally, that season starts on September 1. The state defines the end of ginseng season as December 31, but Brooks says the ginseng typically disappears after the first frost, so it could be much earlier than that.

Collecting the plant from someone else's property without written permission or going onto federal and state owned property to harvest the plant is illegal as well.

It's also illegal to harvest the wild ginseng too early. The plant must be five years or older and have at least three separate stems, which can be a measure of age, before it is ready to be harvested.

In the past week alone, Brooks says he has made three separate stops for people harvesting the plant illegally. The most recent came over the weekend, when he stopped someone who had been harvesting the valuable plant on private property without permission.

With the rate of scrap metal continuing to drop, Brooks says many criminals are now going after ginseng because of its rising price.

"We see a lot of drug users that dig ginseng because it's low overhead. They go out and find it easily, then turn around and use it to buy their drugs with," he says.

Illegally harvesting ginseng is a class one misdemeanor and additional charges related to the harvesting can quickly add up. Harvesting on private property can lead to trespassing charges. Going on protected land, like a national forest, can lead to federal charges. Larceny charges can also be filed for stealing the plant. Digging up more than two hundred dollars worth of the wild ginseng results in felony charges.

As the state works to prevent ginseng from becoming extinct, harvesters are also required to replant the seeds of the harvested plant. The law states they must plant those seeds at the harvest site at the time of the harvest.