Location of rare plant species hidden
Over the coming year, environmental experts are set to flock to Bedford County, updating a detailed roster of its unique, rare and threatened environmental wonders for the first time in 26 years.
But if the county’s current inventory is any indication, a few plant species will be marked: “Not named at the request of the jurisdictional agency overseeing its protection.”
These species – valuable and, in some cases, at risk of extinction – are in a sort of plant “witness protection program,” their identities and precise locations kept secret as poachers hunt them for sale on the black market. Across the state, the plants are stolen for foreign markets, high-end restaurants or backyard gardens.
“When there’s something rare or special in a place, someone, unfortunately, is going to try and take it,” said Donald Schwartz, Bedford County’s planning director.
In Bedford’s current Natural Heritage Inventory, which land developers follow for permitting, at least eight locations feature secret species. The county isn’t alone: Across the state, government agencies avoid publishing the locations of sought-after plants like ginseng and rare orchids.
“Technically we can’t put out information that says ‘there’s a nest.’ The agency would be threatening the species itself if we did that,” said Ellen Shultzabarger, chief of conservation science and ecological resources for the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. “You’re giving out information on rare plants in people’s backyards.”
For those who don’t grow plants passionately or work in the field, the existence of the plant black market in Pennsylvania might seem bizarre.
Some in law enforcement don’t take the threat seriously, one expert said, because they don’t realize the danger the underground industry poses.
Particularly in forested, rural and mountainous areas like central Pennsylvania, wild plants are at risk from low-level criminals who dig them up and turn them over to traders for easy cash, Eric Burkhart, plant science program director at the Penn State University Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center, said.
No. 1 on the list is ginseng, the slow-growing perennial whose roots and extracts are common in Asian traditional medicine, tea and even Western energy drinks.
Common in the Appalachians, the plant has been exported for centuries; in 1784, George Washington noted the sight of pack horses carrying ginseng loads to market in western Pennsylvania. Today, professional growers raise the plant on forested farms, then harvest the roots during a state-mandated September-to-November season.
A burgeoning overseas industry can’t keep up with demand, Burkhart said, and prices have risen steadily. It’s created circumstances ripe for theft, particularly with the February premiere of “Appalachian Outlaws” – a History Channel reality show about mountain men who gather ginseng illegally.
The show has introduced plant poaching to a huge audience, spurring quick-money schemes from those living near ginseng forests, he said.
“Some people … mostly rural people of low income, blue-collar types … they’re unemployed, addicts of alcohol or drugs. It’s a lot easier to go into a forest and steal ginseng than it is to knock off a bank,” Burkhart said.
Under Pennsylvania law, it’s illegal to take ginseng from state forests. Some trespass on private land to dig up wild-growing plants, while others steal directly from professional farmers.
Reports of theft roll in regularly: Burkhart said he recently received a call from a farmer in northeastern Pennsylvania who found his land dotted with holes, the ginseng missing. Another farmer, based in western Maryland, returned from a conference on ginseng theft only to find he’d become a victim while he was away.
For the authorities, stopping theft is an uphill battle. Several state and local agencies can share jurisdiction over a single forest or wetland, and unless a ranger sees theft with his own eyes, it can be difficult to prove a poacher’s guilt.
Plant theft on private property carries its own legal difficulties, Shultzabarger of the state natural resources department said. Rooted in traditional English law, Pennsylvania views animals as the domain of the state while plants are controlled by individual property owners.
Plant-poaching arrests are so difficult, Shultzabarger said, few at the department were able to comment on enforcement firsthand.
Even when thieves are caught, local judges often don’t realize the seriousness of the problem, Burkhart said. For plant thieves, who are often poor or unemployed, there’s little to lose for a day spent digging in woodlands.
“These people get off with a $25 fine and a misdemeanor. Meanwhile, they went and stole thousands of dollars of ginseng from someone,” he said.
In theory, plant theft can be targeted at the highest levels through customs agencies and a decades-old international treaty that protects rare species from illegal trade. But because most of the plant trade is legal, high-level dealers and exporters often don’t know when their supply was stolen.
The global trade is made murkier by the practice – for both ginseng and other rare plants – of “plant laundering.”
Among flower collectors, for example, rare orchids are highly sought-after. With some selling for hundreds of dollars on the online auction site eBay, a short trip to a Pennsylvania forest can yield huge profits for poachers who then resell the plants through legitimate channels, Burkhart said.
Certain species of lady’s-slipper orchids, some common and some endangered in Pennsylvania, easily sell for $50 or more, he said.
In some cases, even well-meaning gardeners can destroy exceedingly rare plants merely through ignorance, Shultzabarger noted. The common pink lady’s-slipper, which grows in vibrant, pink forest clearings, can be confused with the showy lady’s-slipper, a threatened species, she said.
Visitors might see a beautiful flower, she said, and take it home without realizing its status.
For other mountain plants, like the ramp or wild leek, the motivation to take them home is usually less innocent. Long common in Southern cooking and appearing in Appalachian folklore, in recent years the pungent-smelling ramp has become a fixture in restaurants as far as California.
As recently as April, a Denver Post article offered tips on “how and where to find this savory spring treat.”
One answer, Burkhart said, is from poachers, who profit from the ramp’s $20-per-pound price.
“There’s a whole variety of plants that have become targets,” he said.
Efforts to push ginseng sellers from wild picking to professional farming have yielded some success, he said.
At the local level, as in Bedford, officials can do little more than hide the location and identity of rare and threatened species.
The secrecy will likely continue when the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy completes its Bedford County catalogue next year, Schwartz of the planning office said.
“If we said, you know, ‘There’s an acre of ginseng’ – how long would it last?” he said. “A person could go out in a day and just devastate it.”