“This winter, amid the news of the FBI’s arrest of the remaining occupiers of a national wildlife refuge in Oregon, another story unfolded more quietly in the Appalachians. At the heart of it were a small plant that plays a significant role in eastern mountain forests — American ginseng — and Billy Joe Hurley, a North Carolina man who had just been released from prison for stealing ginseng plants from Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
“Hurley, 47, has been convicted at least five times
, stretching back nearly two decades. While ordinarily such a case would be the stuff of the local paper’s police blotter, Hurley’s malfeasance is unusual, garnering national coverage, both because American ginseng roots fetch high prices in Asian markets – hundreds of dollars a pound — and the oddity of a plant heist resulting in a [six-month] prison sentence….
“The history of the park and its creation in the 1930s still stings for some who feel their grandparents were swindled out of their land through eminent domain to establish what is now America’s most visited park…. A few descendants today use that grudge to justify taking ginseng from the park. But for most, like Hurley, ‘ginsenging,’ is a tradition handed down one generation to the next.”