MARIETTA - Most people do not associate ginseng, often used as an ingredient in vitamins, with illegal activity. However, Ohio has a strict set of laws in place to protect the valuable root from over harvesting, and violations of those laws are a continual problem.
"We make several cases a year in Washington County. It's a problem every year," said Eric Bear, wildlife officer for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
Two West Virginia men were arrested in Washington County in August for exactly that.
Glenn R. Swiger Jr., 44, of 277 Ranier Lane, New Cumberland, and Richard D. Ford, 58, of 304 Porter St., New Cumberland, were charged with prohibited acts relating to ginseng, a first-degree misdemeanor. Following up on a complaint, Bear caught the men collecting the plants out of season in Wayne National Forest, he said. "They came out of the woods with 221 roots with them," he said.
The roots, once dried, would have likely weighed near a pound, he said.
Swiger and Ford were both found guilty and were sentenced in Marietta Municipal Court to pay an $800 fine and $105 in court costs. They were also ordered to forfeit the roots and their digging tools, said Bear.
Laws set forth in the Ohio Ginseng Management Program are enforced by ODNR's Division of Wildlife. Among other things, the law stipulates a designated harvesting season and requires only mature plants be collected.
Ginseng harvesters are called "sengers."
The plant is a target for illegal collection because its roots are valuable, said Jay Abele, wildlife officer program manager for ODNR's Division of Wildlife District Four. A pound of dry ginseng fetches anywhere between $500 to $600, Abele said.
The lure of big bucks is enough to cause greedy over harvesting and put the plants in danger, said Bear.
"(The value) is why it is such a big problem. It's an easy source of income to go dig it out of season. Diggers can go harvest and wipe out an entire patch in a matter of a couple hours," said Bear.
The designated collection season for the root takes place between Sept. 1 and Dec. 31. Greedy gatherers are often getting a jump start on the season, said Abele.
"Probably the No. 1 complaint is people harvesting ginseng before the season starts," he said.
To compound the problem, people who are using the plants to "get rich quick" are not usually conscientious enough to follow other rules for the protection of the plant, Bear said.
Ginseng is ready to harvest when berries turn red. Ohio and West Virginia law require the berries be replanted where the plant was harvested and the minimum age for which a plant can be harvested is five years, according to federal regulations.
"If they don't replant the berries, they're killing that plant completely. It takes a plant several years to grow and mature," explained Bear.
The plants are difficult to cultivate on one's own, said Abele. The plants only grow in the Northern Hemisphere, typically in cooler places.
A separate set of rules and limits exist for the harvest of the plant on state property, added Gary Chancey, public affairs officer for the Wayne National Forest.
"This is so popular in the Wayne that a permit system is required to protect these resources from over-collection," said Chancey.
A $20 permit allows collection of up to 95 plants or up to five pounds in "green weight" of the roots. The "green weight" is the weight of the plant before drying.
The permits also outline certain areas of the forest where the plants can be collected. In 2012, Wayne National Forest sold 205 permits.