Unlike many other states, Minnesota has never required diggers of wild ginseng to buy a license.
“Rooters," as they are sometimes called, enjoy the freedom. Like trophy deer hunters and secretive anglers, they are loathe to reveal their activities, much less their favorite patches of the herb, a plant classified in Minnesota as a species of special concern.
But Department of Natural Resources Conservation Officer Mitch Boyum, himself a longtime seeker of wild ginseng, said harvesters are likely to support in some measure a DNR budget proposal that seeks to raise $65,000 a year through new licensing and a novel restitution clause to police those who pick the plants illegally.
The 2017 approach to ginseng is just a drop in the bucket of new DNR fees being sought at the Legislature. The agency’s overall, biennial funding increase of $76 million, requested Wednesday by DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr, is heavily dependent on upcharges for fishing, deer hunting, boating, snowmobiling and state park permits. The inclusion of ginseng as an add-on revenue source shows just how deeply the agency is looking for new money it says is needed to maintain and improve the state’s natural resources and outdoor recreation opportunities.
DNR Chief Financial Officer Barb Juelich said Friday that the DNR now receives just $360 a year from ginseng by charging licensed dealers $5 a year. Over the past three years, the state has averaged about 65 dealers.
Valued for centuries all over the world as a stimulant with various medicinal qualities, wild American ginseng root now sells in Minnesota for upwards of $450 a pound. As recently as three years ago, the same roots certified as wild by any state conservation officer were fetching $900 a pound.
The DNR’s ginseng proposal envisions a new annual dealer’s fee of $1,000 and an all-new $100 yearly tag for diggers, whether they harvest on private or public lands. Presently, the DNR requires a “free” permit to harvest on Wildlife Management Areas and certain forest tracts. State parks and other designated public land are off limits.
The fee structure will be debated because no one knows for sure how many Minnesotans are involved in the trade of wild ginseng, which can’t be legally harvested in Minnesota until Sept. 1 of each year. But budget officials arrived at their estimate of $65,000 a year in revenue by guessing 200 diggers will buy licenses for $100 each, 30 dealers will buy licenses for $1,000 each, and illegal ginseng rooters would pay $15,000 a year in restitution based on current market value of the roots.
Specific license amounts notwithstanding, Boyum and DNR Enforcement Assistant Director Greg Salo said the changes would help the state keep wild ginseng sustainable. “It definitely would assist us,’’ Boyum said.
Right now, Boyum said, diggers who harvest wild ginseng on private land can be tagged for trespassing. But there’s no authority to confiscate the plants, and trespassing tickets are only considered a “cost of doing business,’’ he said.
Boyum is based in Rushford, Minn., and the southeastern part of the state is considered the most sought-after region for ginseng, a perennial that favors shade and well-drained forest floors. Diggers of wild ginseng also operate north of St. Cloud and along the Minnesota River Valley.
Depending on conditions, a wild American ginseng plant can take more than 20 or 25 years to reach maturity. State law requires all harvested plants to have at least three prongs with five leaflets on each. Minnesota also requires that seeds of collected wild ginseng plants — enclosed in the plant’s red berries — be planted immediately in the area of harvest.