Three Cocke County men face federal charges of illegally harvesting ginseng in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Park spokesperson Dana Soehn said rangers received reports of the offense at 2:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 2, but it was later in the evening when the arrests were made.
Danny Grooms, 28, and Robert Goben, Jr., 46 of Cosby, and Ryan Stieman, 18 of Newport allegedly dug the protected plant along Highway 321 between Cosby and Greenbrier.
Grooms was arrested near his home on Baxter Road early Friday morning by Cocke County Deputy Zach Shelton, for park rangers who were looking for him. A search of the vehicle resulted in the confiscation of suspected marijuana, and marijuana pipes and a grinder so he was charged with possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia. Grooms also was wanted for violation of probation.
Soehn said the ginseng harvesting carries with it up to six months in jail and a fine up to $5,000 on conviction.
In a separate case, Christopher Ian Jacobson, 31, of Cosby, recently was sentenced to 80 days in prison and was ordered to pay a $1,000 fine. Jacobson pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Asheville to the illegal possession of 298 roots of ginseng.
American ginseng is a native plant in the Smoky Mountains. These wild roots are also a highly prized tonic, particularly in Asian markets. Dried ginseng roots are used in medicines, teas, and other health products. American ginseng was recently placed in North Carolina’s Watch Category which includes generally widespread species that are in commercial demand and are often collected and sold in high volume.
This category was created to bring attention to the issue, since such high volume collection is unsustainable in the long run.
Ginseng harvest in the park has always been illegal. It is legal to harvest ginseng outside the park on private lands or with a permit in certain Forest Service areas during the harvesting season.
Park scientists have realized these slow-growing native plants could disappear because harvesting means taking the entire ginseng root. Each year law enforcement rangers seize between 500 and 1000 illegally poached ginseng roots.
Over the years, park biologists have marked and replanted over 15,000 roots seized by law enforcement. Monitoring indicates that many of these roots have survived and are again thriving in these mountains.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office and the National Park Service remind the public that gathering ginseng on federal lands, such as the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is a federal crime.
The Smokies are the largest fully protected reserve known for wild ginseng. This plant was formerly abundant throughout the eastern mountains, but due to overharvesting, populations have been significantly reduced to isolated patches. The roots poached in this park are usually young, between the ages of 5 and 10 years, and have not yet reached their full reproductive capacity. In time, the park’s populations might recover if poaching ceased.