A year ago, a mushroom picker was beaten to death in Oregon. The October before that, a mushroom picker was shot to death in the state's woods. Both murders remain unsolved, but the victims were robbed of cash and their lucrative booty of matsutake mushrooms.
Commercial harvesters, armed wit long knives to slice off mushrooms an guns to protect themselves, invade th woods of the Pacific Northwest each fall to satisfy demand both here and abroad. The most prized spoil of this war is the matsutake or pine mushroom, a flavorful fungus with a spicy aroma. Collecting matsutakes, which fetch up to $350 a pound, is a multi-million-dollar business.
"Within the National Park System, we've allowed some collecting for personal consumption, but it's gone beyond that," says Erv Gasser, natural resource specialist for the Northwest region of the National Park Service (NPS). "People come singly, they come in groups, and devastate an area. "
Mushroom poaching is a problem at a number of parks in the region, but one has been harder hit than Crater Lake National Park in Oregon, prime matsutake habitat. Mushroom picking is forbidden inside the park but is legal with a permit on surrounding Fores Service land. With the large influx of commercial pickers in recent years, the park's boundaries offer little deterrent.
"What we're finding is that they [mushroom pickers] often have Forest Service permits," says Mike Blankenship, of the Northwest region of the Park Service. "But after they have picked the Forest Service areas clean, they come onto Park Service land." An estimated 1,000 mushroom pickers were on the boundary or inside Crater Lake in October, Blankenship says.
From early October until the first freeze, hundreds of pickers camp on Forest Service land. Early in the morning, often before first light, vehicles crawl along dusty Forest Service roads, some bordering the park, dropping off pickers in pairs. The pickers spread out into the woods and spend all day in search of matsutakes. That evening, the pickers stand in lines outside any of a dozen buying stations. Buyers transport the mushrooms to Portland or Seattle, where they are put on a plane bound for Asia. Within 24 to 48 hours of being collected, most of the matsutakes are sold in Japan, where fresh mushrooms command high prices.
Mushroom poaching - and plant thievery as a whole - is not a problem unique to the Northwest. Parks throughout the country are targeted by poachers in search of plants that fetch a high price from people who are either unconcerned about the plant's origin or interested only in adding an unusual specimen to a private collection. Though the incidental picking or digging of wildflowers and other plants by visitors contributes to the problem, large-scale harvesting for commercial purposes is the most damaging.
But until 1992, little was known of the extent of the problem. That year, Jen Coffey, resources management specialist in the NPS Washington office, developed a native plant protection questionnaire that was sent to all parks. Nine of the ten NPS regions responded, reporting that 99 species of native plants were known to have been illegally collected in 37 park units in 1990. In 1991, 88 species were stolen from 41 units. Although plant poaching occurs in fewer parks than wildlife poaching, the number of plants being poached is not significantly lower than the numbers for wildlife. (In 1990, 105 species of wildlife were poached in 153 parks.)
In the three years of the study (1989 - 1991), between 90 and 95 percent of the citations for illegal plant collection were issued in three regions: Southeast, Western, and Pacific Northwest. The only arrests during the period were three at Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina in 1991 for stealing ginseng.
National and international market forces in the wild plant trade target certain species and drive the regional nature of plant poaching. The species under the greatest pressure from the wild plant trade is ginseng. Unlike black bears, for example, which are found throughout the United States, ginseng is found only in a handful of parks in the East. Other plants commonly stolen from Eastern parks include lady's slipper orchids, rhododendrons, irises, and jack-in-the-pulpits. Most of these plants never leave the United States and are destined for collectors, private gardeners, or herbalists.
Moores Creek National Battlefield in North Carolina reported that the Venus flytrap, popular in the wild plant trade, has virtually disappeared from the park, although the cause is unknown. The Easter lily, also popular in the wild plant trade, is declining at Congaree Swamp National Monument in South Carolina. Acadia National Park in Maine reported that people seeking additions to their gardens have most likely caused the extirpation of the showy lady's slipper.
In the Southwest, yuccas and cacti top the list of poached species; at least 13 different species of cacti were stolen from parks in 1990 and 1991. Tony Bonanno, Southwest regional chief ranger, reports that demand is high for small barrel-type cacti as well as small evergreens, such as pinyon pines and junipers, some of which are taken for nursery stock.
Of the plants reported by the parks as poached, at least 20 are federally listed as endangered or threatened or are species considered to be candidates for the federal list. Some others are protected by state law.
"It's a serious problem," says Dick Martin, chief of the Branch of Resource and Visitor Protection in Washington, D.C. And it is on the rise. "We don't have absolute data, but park people say that these activities are increasing," he says. The increase is due to the fact that the illegal plant trade is becoming more lucrative, and there is little deterrent to stealing. Fines range from a paltry $25 for picking plants for personal use to $250 for picking them for profit. In the Pacific Northwest, mushroom pickers can make hundreds of dollars a day. As certain plants become increasingly scarce, usually due to habitat loss, their values skyrocket. And in many cases, the largest and healthiest populations are found in parks.
Those seeking plants for medicinal purposes are another outlet for illegally harvested plants. The use of natural sources for healing has experienced a revival in recent years, driving the trade of medicinal plants to new heights. Along with the belief that natural is better, herbalists tend to believe that wild-harvested herbs are more powerful than cultivated ones. At least 142 species of plants in the parks have known market values, including medicinal herbs such as golden seal, lady's slippers, and bloodroot. Golden seal, among the most valuable of wild medicinals, is used to cleanse the liver, blood, and kidneys and as a digestive aid. Bloodroot is used to treat respiratory problems, such as emphysema and asthma. And lady's slippers, besides being beautiful and coveted by collectors, are sought after for another reason: their roots are used to make American valerian, a natural sleeping aid. Other forms of valerian come from the plant of the same name.
But no herb carries a bigger price tag or wider appeal than American ginseng. This long-lived perennial was once abundant in the East and the Great Lakes region of the United States and Canada, but it was already in international demand in the 1700s. Kentucky settler Daniel Boone dug up and shipped tons of ginseng roots to the Orient, where it is used for the same purposes as Asian ginseng: an herbal medicine to treat inflammation, infection, and a lack of vigor. It is also used as an aphrodisiac. Ginseng had already begun to decline in the United States by the 1800s, and unrelenting collection has continued to the present. In 1992, 44,601 pounds of ginseng with a value of $10.7 million were illegally exported from the United States.
Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains national parks are probably the largest areas of fully protected ginseng habitat. Despite the fact that more than a half century has passed since the establishment of these parks, the plant still has not recovered from early exploitation at Shenandoah and continues to be scarce at Great Smokies. Park rangers believe poaching is the cause of ginseng's continued decline.
"I firmly believe that ginseng poaching is our biggest threat in the park," says John Garrison, supervisory ranger at Great Smokies. "I used to think it was bear poaching, but I think ginseng is potentially higher. The plants can't run and hide."
In one week last September, rangers confiscated two loads of stolen ginseng of 1,650 roots each. "It's difficult to say how ginseng is doing in the park, but when we see these big seizures, I have to wonder," Garrison says. At approximately $300 a dry pound of ginseng root, each load was worth about $1,200 to $1,500. According to Garrison, nearly all of the ginseng collected in the park is headed to Asia, where forests have been stripped of the plant.
For the past three years, the park has been replanting the confiscated roots. "This year we have 3,600 roots to put in," says Janet Rock, a botanist at Great Smokies. "We've put in only half so far." Unfortunately, rangers have to wait for the courts to settle the cases before they can replant the evidence. And the longer the roots sit in a refrigerator, the less viable they become.
From a law enforcement standpoint, dealing with poachers requires a concentrated effort for which the Park Service does not have the staff. Approximately 77 percent of parks responding to the native plant protection questionnaire reported that their staffing levels were inadequate to address the problem.
Without additional funding or personnel - a situation not expected to change - parks are having to make do with what they have to fight this relatively new and escalating problem. The strain on the work force is compounded by the fact that the picking seasons for many plants coincides with hunting seasons, when more wildlife poaching occurs, as well as the busiest season for Eastern parks - fall.
In the Pacific Northwest, park staff now must patrol in pairs, rather than singly, because of the number of weapons found on mushroom pickers, a significant number of whom have criminal records. In one day last fall at Crater Lake, rangers wrote 13 citations for illegal mushroom harvesting and collected several guns and assorted machetes and knives. Though cases have not surfaced of park rangers being threatened by pickers, increased competition, weapons, and the Park Service's limited resources for patrolling will make the woods even more dangerous next season.
The thefts also create a natural resource management nightmare. In many cases, the method of collecting is as, if not more, detrimental than the loss of the plant. A harmful technique used to collect mushrooms, for instance, employs rakes to expose young mushrooms hidden under pine needles. This damages the underground network of threads from which mushrooms-sprout. Thieves in search of ginseng in the East dig up all the roots in an area, leaving nothing behind to regenerate. Ginseng harvesting traditionally took place from September to early October after berries containing seeds had ripened. Harvesters generally planted the seeds to ensure a new generation of ginseng. But because plants are so valuable, poachers do not bother to reseed mature roots and even take the ones that are not quite mature enough to produce seeds.
A recent audit by the Department of the Interior concluded that "The National Park Service's protection of natural resources...was not sufficient.... As result, natural resources in some parks have deteriorated or have been seriously damaged."
NPCA's Pacific Northwest Regional Director Dale Crane says the Park Service needs rangers who are well trained in law enforcement and a significant increase in the permanent ranger staff to counter poaching. "Plant poaching is an extremely serious degradation of park resources that cannot be controlled with the low level of staffing we currently have in the park system."
With an escalating problems, parks are looking more and more for help from others - other parks, other public land agencies, private organizations, and visitors. Parks with adjacent Forest Service land are working to implement cross-designation of authority so a Forest Service ranger could cite people for illegal collection or possession of plants on Park Service land, and vice versa.
Crater Lake's Chief Ranger George Buckingham says he would like to use rangers from small parks in the area during the mushroom-picking season to enhance his staff. Their base salaries would be paid by their home parks, and Buckingham could promise them plenty of law enforcement experience.
Acadia National Park found an ally in the Garden Club Federation of Maine to protect sea lavender, a wildflower that grows just above the intertidal zone. The plant was illegally collected in the park because its small flowers are popular in dry flower arrangements. In addition to educating visitors, the park's staff worked with garden clubs to let people know that the plant was in trouble. The Garden Club Federation put out a "Do Not Pick" advisory, and the Maine merchandiser L.L. Bean, Inc., pulled lavender wreaths from its catalog even though they were a popular item.
Education and involvement of visitors may prove to be the most important factor in protecting plants from poaching. Some parks use interpretive programs, videos, and brochures to educate visitors about the problem. Parks also actively involve visitors by asking that they report any signs of poaching.
"We're learning that we don't have to just do it by ourselves," says the Southwest region's Tony Bonanno, who helped to start the Parkwatch Program in 1982 at the 470-mile-long Blue Ridge, Parkway before being transferred. The parks are encouraging neighbors and visitors to take an interest in protecting their parks, he says.
And the Great Smokies' Garrison agrees, "I'm a firm believer that the only way we're going to stop poaching is through education."
Frustrated by increasing natural resource crimes and decreasing budgets and staff, park rangers have formed an independent nonprofit organization to improve the resource protection efforts in the national parks. The National Park Ranger Resource Protection Fund was officially organized in November, but already Executive Director-Bob Martin, also the acting district ranger at Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, is encouraged by the response.
Within two months of forming, the Fund had 5,000 members and support from Vice President Al Gore, Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbit, and NPS Director Roger Kennedy.
According to Martin, the Fund will attack resource degradation on two fronts, education and resource protection, by:
* Donating or lending investigative equipment to national parks;
* Sponsoring, coordinating, and funding ranger training in resource protection;
* Setting up a toll-free NPS resource protection hotline;
* Implementing a reward system for people offering information on resource crimes;
* Educating the public about poaching through outreach programs.
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|Title Annotation:||theft of plants from national parks|
|Author:||La Pierre, Yvette|
|Date:||May 1, 1994|
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