Poachers Looting National Parks of Treasures
- Poachers Looting National Parks of Treasures
By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 24, 2005; A08
SHENANDOAH NATIONAL PARK, Va. -- A self-described "old-timer," Skip
Wissinger has spent 32 years traversing the park's 300 square miles and
identifying its natural treasures. But now many of the park's most prized
resources -- its American ginseng plants, black bears and unusual
butterflies -- are disappearing.
Looking over a vast hollow filled with wildflowers and vibrant grasses last
month, Wissinger tried in vain to spot the small ginseng plants that used to
grow there in profusion but are now being stolen to make tea, health
supplements and aphrodisiacs.
"When I look down in that hollow and see no viable ginseng population, to me
that is a very serious matter," said Wissinger, a National Park Service
special agent. "In my view they are an integral part in the portfolio of the
nation's natural resources."
That portfolio is now showing heavy losses. While the National Park Service
does not keep comprehensive statistics on how much poaching occurs in its
nearly 400 parks, its 2006 budget request reported that thefts have helped
spur the decline of at least 29 wildlife species. "The poaching of wildlife
from national parks has been steadily increasing each year for the past
several years," the document said.
Some of these resources are scarce to begin with, and the toll that poaching
takes on the national parks is rising.
"If there's something with a dollar amount attached to it in a park,
somebody is trying to make a profit off it," said Dennis Barnett, law
enforcement administrator for the Park Service.
Because national parks enjoy special protections -- hunting is prohibited,
and activities such as mining and logging are restricted -- they are home to
plants and animals that are scarce elsewhere. That has attracted thieves who
often go to extraordinary lengths to spirit away flora and fauna and then
sell to the highest bidder.
In Shenandoah National Park, the ginseng and the black bears that thrive
along the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains are the biggest draw for
poachers. Wild ginseng sells for $400 a pound on the open market, 10 times
the price of cultivated ginseng. And a black bear's dried gallbladder sells
for $1,000 in Asia, making it worth more per ounce than cocaine.
Living things are not the only targets. Potsherds from national parks end up
being sold on the Internet, sometimes by the pound. On occasion, poachers
have transported their ill-gotten goods by water to evade authorities by
cutting down ancient trees in California's Redwood National Park and
floating them downstream.
Park visitors also have taken more obscure items with less commercial value,
such as owl pellets, the fur-coated bones that owls regurgitate after eating
"Who would even think to look for owl pellets?" asked special agent Todd
Swain, who works in more than half a dozen national parks in California.
"All of it goes back to people being pack rats by nature. There aren't any
resources, other than air, I've come across that people don't collect."
Park officials are most concerned, however, that poaching is depleting
nonrenewable resources, such as remnants of ancient civilizations and very
rare species. Thieves take at least one archaeological artifact from a park
every day, they say, and a 1988 federal survey found poachers had taken 105
wildlife species from 153 parks the year before. That illegal take included
12 threatened and endangered species, including the desert tortoise, Steller
sea lion and Schaus swallowtail butterfly.
"The national parks are the best sanctuaries for these plants and animals,"
said Peter Dratch, who runs the Park Service's endangered species program.
"That's why we get concerned when these genetic resources get hammered."
These estimates may be low, officials add, because they lack the resources
to properly track what is missing. When agents at Joshua Tree National Park
in California got special funding to monitor thefts in the mid-1990s, for
example, the reported number of stolen archaeological artifacts mushroomed.
Park officials said the biggest problem they face is a lack of money for
enforcement. The Interior Department has only 51 special agents for 388
national parks, which means that each agent is responsible for patrolling
more than 1.5 million acres.
"It means a lot of stuff is going to go on that they don't detect," Swain
said. "They have to be in the right place at the right time."
Just this month, the FBI began investigating the theft of a ceremonial
tomahawk taken from a display case during visiting hours at the Whitman
Mission National Historic Site in Washington state. Experts believe the
tomahawk was used to kill Marcus Whitman, a 19th-century missionary who
helped settle the Northwest.
Barnett said the government might want to reassess its funding for parks law
enforcement, given the threats parks face. "Staffing would be an issue we
need to look at," he said.
While the government has provided more money for enforcement in recent
years, officials could not say whether it was aimed at poaching or other
activities. Blake Selzer, legislative representative at the National Parks
Conservation Association, said the lack of enforcement "is yet another
consequence of the funding shortfall facing our national parks."
Rangers and special agents have become more creative, however, devising new
tools to identify stolen federal property. In Shenandoah, for example,
officials are coating ginseng with an orange dye that glows under black
light, essentially creating a bar code that can prove that roots that end up
in a marketplace originated in the park.
Out West, park officials have begun embedding devices in cactuses that mark
them as federal plants, and they have set up remote cameras and sensors to
monitor areas where poachers may lurk.
State and federal sting operations have nabbed dozens of park thieves in
recent years. Operation VIPER, a joint effort of the Park Service and
Virginia's Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, entailed setting up a
fake storefront in Elkton, Va., where officers sold black-market goods to
customers. Prosecutors ultimately indicted dozens of defendants on more than
100 charges. The government has already obtained 31 convictions and
collected $150,000 in fines and restitution for those crimes.
"You have to be especially sneaky to get into position to see what they're
doing, but it's possible," Swain said.
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