Galax takes a beating from blackmarket trade
They operate in groups, or sometimes alone, packing duffle bags of the illicit product by foot through the Western North Carolina wilderness as they try their best to evade federal agents.
Once out of the woods, they smuggle their contraband in the trunks of cars, traveling back roads as they move the goods from remote drop points to warehouses where it is then sold and shipped domestically and to countries across the globe.
Unsuspecting consumers on the receiving end are hardly aware that they are purchasing contraband, however. They’re merely ordering floral arrangements.
As for the perpetrators, they aren’t drug dealers; they’re galax poachers — and their actions are having a detrimental impact on the Southern Appalachian landscape.
Galax is a small, cool-weather plant with broad, waxy, heart-shaped leaves. It’s prized as a base plant in floral arrangements because the leaves hold their green color for up to several weeks after they’ve been picked.
The larger the leaf, the more desirable it is — which is why a unique type of galax, called tetraploid galax and found only along the Blue Ridge escarpment in the eastern range of the Southern Appalachians, has come under increasing pressure from illegal poachers.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that as many as three billion galax leaves are harvested each year from the Southern Appalachians — some taken with a valid permit, but much of it poached illegally.
North Carolina alone accounts for approximately 99 percent of the national galax harvest. Around nine galax dealers in North Carolina dominate the trade, shipping most of what’s harvested here across the country and worldwide, from Japan to Holland.
The Blue Ridge Parkway runs right along the escarpment, making the Parkway a hotspot for galax poachers.
Recent surveys on galax along the Parkway have yielded startling results, said Nora Murdock, an ecologist with the Appalachian Highlands Inventory and Monitoring Network, a federal agency which monitors animal and plant populations on national park land.
Between 80 and 95 percent of the galax patches along the Parkway had been targeted by poachers, according to a general survey her team conducted last year. The team monitors groupings of galax plants, some as large as 20 acres and some as small as a few square feet, for precise quantitive data as well as more general data.
Sometimes the signs of poaching are more discreet, such as a drag mark on the forest floor from a duffle bag full or leaves or a plot of plants with only the larger leaves selectively harvested while the rest, are left intact — this represents a more traditional way of harvesting galax that doesn’t necessarily kill the plant, a more careful approach that allows the picker to return to the same plot year after year.
However, other times the results are more devastating.
Murdock has discovered patches where every plant has been pulled up from the ground along with its root system. The larger leaves are clipped on the spot, and the rest are dropped and left in the woods. This recent trend in harvesting methods is a particular concern because it kills the entire plant.
“We’ve found tens of thousands of roots dropped on top of the ground,” Murdock said. “The scale of it is beyond anything you can imagine.”
The elusive poacher
The poachers are willing to go to great lengths to find these galax patches, skirting cliffs, climbing on all fours through thickets and hiking long distances hauling thousands of leaves. Some of the harvested galax comes from parts of the Parkway so well hidden or difficult to access that Murdock is led to believe the poachers are monitoring and cataloguing the plots as well, perhaps with the use of a global position system.
“They are not just picking it off the side of road,” Murdock said. “They are bushwhacking on hands and knees, climbing cliffs — that says someone is paying a lot of money for this.”
Law enforcement agents have also noted that the poachers’ approach has become much more discreet, with a driver dropping off a crew of pickers on the Parkway and then picking them up at another point further down the road. This coordination eliminates leaving a car parked along the Parkway for long periods — a traditional tip-off for agents.
And the payoff for poachers can be well worth it. While traditional prices for galax were between 1 and 5 cents paid to pickers per leaf, Murdock said she noted a recent jump in wholesale prices leading her to believe pickers may be making more. Prices for galax leaves can also increase in the winter while supply is low and the leaves assume a seasonal purple color.
Several web-based wholesale floral supply companies are selling galax for as high as 80 cents to $1.70 per leaf, depending on the size. And a picker can gather as many as 5,000 leaves per day along the Parkway — bundled in groups of 25 and typically stacked in a spiral pattern inside of duffle bags or boxes — making it one of the more lucrative plants to poach along with wild ginseng roots, which can sell for up to $1,000 per dry pound.
Galax and ginseng are two of the most threatened plant species in the Southern Appalachians due to poaching, according to Tim Francis, district ranger for the Pisgah District of the Blue Ridge Parkway. In 2005, the galax industry in the region was expected to bring as much as $20 million to local harvesters.
Harvesting of galax for use in floral arrangements has been reported since the early 1900s, but Francis said recently the galax harvest has reached a point beyond sustainability. Some experts have attributed this to fewer jobs and higher unemployment. Another factor, however, is the increase in immigrant populations in the region who have taken up galax hunting.
Enforcement of galax poaching can be particularly difficult. For the 10 rangers assigned to the Pisgah District of the parkway — a 165-mile stretch running from Grandfather Mountain to Cherokee — their primary concern is patrolling the scenic roadway itself. From handling car wrecks to catching speeders, backcountry trails and pockets of forest along the Parkway don’t get daily attention.
But, some poachers do get busted. Last year, rangers arrested eight galax poachers on the Parkway. In 2008, more than 60 were arrested in a single year between joint operations with the U.S. Forest Service and the Parkway, including a bust of an organized poaching ring whose leaders were charged with conspiracy and sentenced to jail time.
Yet, despite routine arrests, the risk of jail time and fines of up to $5,000, Francis said efforts may fall short of curtailing the number of ready poachers.
“For every four or five we catch today, there are four or five more the next day,” Francis said.
Controlling the source
Although, picking galax from the Parkway or the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is illegal — given their status of national parks — harvesting galax from the Pisgah or Nantahala national forests is legal during certain times of year with a permit.
That makes enforcement difficult. Someone with a forest service permit could illegally pick from the Parkway, but unless caught in the actual act, they could lie about the leaves’ origin to rangers. Likewise, wholesale galax dealers when presented with a batch of leaves have no way of knowing if they were poached from the Parkway or picked legally.
Picking galax in the national forest does have its restrictions. Harvesting is off-limits for two months of the critical growing season in spring. Only leaves larger than 3 inches in diameter can be picked, thus ensuring the plant survives and keeps growing.
The cheapest permit is $35 and allows pickers to collect up to 100 pounds of leaves but is only good for up to two weeks after being issued.
In fiscal year 2012, the Pisgah Ranger District of the Pisgah National Forest issued 224 galax harvesting permits. In that same year, rangers also apprehended six people for harvesting without a permit.
Several efforts have been made to stop the taking of galax at its source. One deterrent included painting galax leaves within the Parkway boundaries with orange paint to ruin their economic value, but the sheer expanse of the acreage to cover made that approach difficult. The paint also has to be applied anew ever two years or so.
North Carolina State University researchers at their Mountain Horticultural Crops Research & Extension center near Asheville have also attempted to develop a method of growing galax commercially, to relive the pressure on wild plants and create another cash crop option for farmers, but Francis said the results have not been economically viable.
From the day a galax seed is planted in the ground, it can take four years before a harvestable leaf appears on the plant, Murdock said.
With many unsuccessful attempts to slow the illegal harvest, Murdock worried about the options left for those concerned with protecting the mountain galax species, and the future of the plant if a solution weren’t discovered quickly.
“Before we started monitoring, I would have said ‘no’, the poachers couldn’t make it go extinct,” Murdock said, “But from what I’ve seen in last few years … I don’t know now.”