Whitesburg KY

Kentucky may be banned from exporting its ginseng


Exports of wild American ginseng could be cut by some 20 percent if the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service bars Kentucky from selling the medicinal herb internationally.

Kentucky, the nation’s leading producer of ginseng, may have jeopardized its right to export the highly prized roots by not adequately policing their harvest and sale, said Pat Ford, a Fish and Wildlife Service botanist who oversees the nation’s ginseng program.

Touted as a cure-all for everything from headaches to sexual dysfunction, ginseng is protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which requires the federal government to ensure the roots being exported have been acquired legally.

But in Kentucky, federal agents have found widespread violations of U.S. ginseng laws. Last year, they charged 17 ginseng dealers with illegally purchasing the tiny roots, each of which weighs a fraction of an ounce. Special agent Bob Snow said those dealers had purchased roots from undercover officers during the spring and early summer months when digging is forbidden.

So far, 10 of the people charged have paid fines totaling $35,000. They also forfeited up to $200,000 worth of roots. None have been sentenced to jail. Seven others have pleaded guilty and are scheduled for sentencing in U.S. district court in London on July 6.

Mac Stone, head of the ginseng program in the state Department of Agriculture, is urging legislators to toughen state laws against violators in an effort to convince federal authorities that Kentucky is serious about regulating the harvest and sale of the rare plant. Stone told lawmakers this week that inaction could jeopardize Kentucky’s wild ginseng trade, which generates $5 million to $8 million a year in supplemental revenue for rural families, primarily in impoverished eastern Kentucky mountain communities.

Ford said the federal investigation shows that at least a portion

of Kentucky’s ginseng wasn’t legally acquired, as required by the international agreement, and potentially could lead to a ban on Kentucky exports.

“That certainly comes into question now,” she said.

In the past 10 years, only Georgia has been removed from the list of states approved for wild ginseng exports. That was because Georgia hadn’t filed a required annual ginseng harvest report to the Fish and Wildlife Service. Once the report was filed, the state’s export privileges were restored.

Ford said the Fish and Wildlife Service hasn’t yet decided whether to remove Kentucky from the list of states that can export ginseng. That decision, she said, hinges on the actions state officials take to protect against illegal sales.

Michael McGuffin, president of the American Herbal Products Association, said the industry would oppose any efforts by the federal government to halt Kentucky exports.

“I think the idea that Fish and Wildlife would withhold the right of legal dealers in Kentucky to export their ginseng because others are operating illegally is contrary to the generally accepted rule of law,” McGuffin said. “We don’t generally punish the innocent for the faults of people who skirt the law.”

Industry representatives say barring Kentucky ginseng would reduce U.S. exports of the roots to China and other Asian countries by about 20 percent and push the price to record levels. Kentucky accounts for 7.5 tons of the annual U.S. ginseng exports, which total about 30 tons.

All the nation’s top ginsengproducing states are in Appalachia, but Kentucky produces nearly double the others. Tennessee, West Virginia and North Carolina produce about 3 1/2 tons each per year.

The Fish and Wildlife Service requires each of the states to monitor ginseng to guard against over-harvesting.

However, the biggest threat to the species may not be diggers, said Donan Jenkins, a ginseng dealer from the western Kentucky town of Sturgis. Jenkins, a retired state conservation officer, said deer, which eat the plants, and turkey, which eat the seeds, destroy far more ginseng than diggers. And, he said, habitat loss to coal and timber companies has also had a drastic affect.

Even so, Jenkins said, ginseng remains plentiful, despite the push by state and federal officials to toughen laws.

“They’re setting up there in an air-conditioned offices saying ‘we’ve got to shut this thing down,'” Jenkins said. “All they’re wanting is big headlines.”

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