Ginseng (ISU Extension photo)

Two people from Illinois have pleaded guilty to several charges involving the illegal harvesting of ginseng back in July of 2018.

State Conservation officer, Paul Kay, says it started after a report of activity in Geode State Park in the southeast corner of the state.
“We had received some tips that some people might be in there digging ginseng — but we really didn’t have much other than a possible vehicle description when we found out about it. The state park ranger saw a vehicle with that description that was speeding and pulled them over and that was how it all started,” Kay says.

Two people in the van that was stopped, Ki Pil Park and Jaemyung Yoo of Chicago, had 67 freshly harvested ginseng plants. The roots of the ginseng plant are believed to be a remedy for many things — such as diabetes — and is also been touted as an aphrodisiac. Kay says the plant was bringing as much as $800 a pound at one point.

“It’s throughout Iowa — especially in the timbered areas of eastern and northeast Iowa. It’s protected in all state grounds. So, we don’t let anybody dig in any of our state-owned grounds,” according to Kay. He says there is a ginseng season for areas that are not state land.
“We don’t allow the legal harvest until September,” according to Kay. “There’s berries that develop on top of the plant and when you have a ginseng diggers permit, if you are in a legal area, you are required to actually plant those berries back so that the ginseng can replenish itself. If you dig up the root and everything, then basically you’ve killed the plant and it’s not going to repopulate that way.”

Kay says the investigation took a long time as the two Chicago residents are Korean and that was the language on their phones that had to be translated for evidence in the investigation.”Evidence form the phone showed that they had been in other state parks in Iowa and other states as early as April. In fact, all of their evidence showed that they had never actually dug after August. So, its’s all been prior to the season,” Kay explains.

He says they worked with United States Fish and Wildlife Service after finding out the two had been in other state parks in Illinois and Wisconsin. Kay says the penalties can ramp up to felony charges if the ginseng is taken across state lines to be sold. He says it carries a lot stiffer penalties and fines if it can be proved and could also include some jail time. Kay says the federal officials haven’t been able to nail that all down yet and are still looking into whether they ginseng was taken across state lines.

Kay says the state has tried to keep a better eye on the ginseng on state ground as the demand for it has increased. “We’ve got some patches that we know that are closer to some trails or roads, so we’ve actually put some cameras up in those areas in the past,” according to Kay. “In fact– we had a camera up in another area not too far from Geode that they had actually Googled on their phone about going to, but they had not gone to.”

The officers seized the ginseng plants, along with equipment relating to the digging of ginseng and cite Park and Yoo before releasing them after the traffic stop. They were later charged with 32 counts and then pleaded guilty to one count of not possessing a ginseng harvester’s permit, one count of harvesting ginseng on state owned lands and three counts of harvesting ginseng out of season. Kay says each of those counts carries a $195 fine. They were also assessed $132  each as restitution for the ginseng.