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Poachers Looting National Parks of Treasures

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  • Bob Huddleston
    Poachers Looting National Parks of Treasures By Juliet Eilperin Washington Post Staff Writer Monday, October 24, 2005; A08 SHENANDOAH NATIONAL PARK, Va. -- A
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 24, 2005
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      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
      small prey.
      "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.

      Take care,

      Bob

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