ASHEVILLE, N.C. (AP) — Broke and down on his luck, Billy Joe Hurley turned to the only way he knew how to make a living: poaching ginseng.
But after his latest in a long string of arrests, federal prosecutors had enough.
They told a U.S. magistrate Thursday that poaching by Hurley and others in the national forests in western North Carolina has dramatically reduced the numbers of wild ginseng — a humble looking plant whose roots can fetch more than $900 a pound.
Prosecutor David Thorne said they needed to send a message: Illegal ginseng harvesting won't be tolerated.
Hurley, 46, of Bryson City, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 5½ months in jail — the fifth time in a decade that Hurley has been sentenced for illegal possession or harvesting of ginseng. He could have received up to six months in jail and a $5,000 fine.
But Magistrate Dennis Howell said he didn't fine Hurley because he knew he couldn't pay it.
Hurley's legal troubles illustrate a larger problem: As prices continue to skyrocket, more people are traipsing through national forests, state parks and even private property to hunt ginseng, leaving the plant's survival in doubt.
"We only catch a small fraction of what's going on here," said Wes Mullins, a National Park Service ranger who arrested Hurley on June 28. "Most of them are woodsmen and they know the mountains better than we do."
He said poachers often camp out deep in the hardwood forest, digging up the slow-growing plant for its two- and three-prong roots. They can get up to $200 for fresh roots. Dried roots can go for more than $900 because of the strong demand, mostly from eastern Asian markets.
"We just have to keep trying. Otherwise, the plant will go extinct," he said.
Digging ginseng — or 'sang, as some still call it — has been an Appalachian tradition for generations. And it's not illegal to harvest ginseng on your own property.
The Chinese have used ginseng for thousands of years as everything from an aphrodisiac to an elixir of longevity. But Asian ginseng has become virtually extinct due in part to overharvesting.
Some large-scale farms in China, the United States and other countries grow ginseng, said Jim Hamilton, the Watauga County extension director.
But wild American ginseng is the most desired and fetches the most money because of its potency. And it only grows in selected cool climates, such as the Appalachian Mountains. It flourishes in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which straddles the border of North Carolina and Tennessee.
Each September, the U.S. Forest Service sets a legal harvesting period for the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests, issuing permits that limit how much can be gathered.
This year, the agency has issued just 136 permits through a lottery system. Each permit holder can gather up to 3 pounds.
But the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is off limits for ginseng harvesting.
And that's where wildlife officials have been working to save ginseng, one plant at a time.
Jim Corbin, a plant protection specialist with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, has developed a way to track ginseng. Each August, he and a group of volunteers spend a week trudging up steep hillsides in the park. When they find a ginseng plant, they push aside the dirt and sprinkle yellow powered dye to mark the roots.
Ginseng dealers are alerted not to buy plants with dyed roots.
Corbin said his team usually marks more than 2,000 plants during the week.
But with ginseng roots fetching so much money, he says it's hard to stop poachers.
Just ask 42-year-old James Williamson, who faces ginseng poaching charges.
People in western North Carolina are struggling to get by, Williamson told the Associated Press.
"There aren't many jobs around here. Logging is gone. Mills are gone. It's easy to go out in the woods and walk," he said. "I'm not a bad guy. I just need the money."
"This was something fathers taught their sons," he added. "People used to go digging just to get extra money for Christmas. Now they need the money to live."
That's one reason Hurley has been poaching ginseng for years, said his attorney, Corey Atkins. He said Hurley was "destitute," living with his parents. He had no money, no job prospects.
"He is sorry," Atkins said, adding, "It is something that he has developed a skill for — identifying the plants."