The Ethical Forager: A Review of Harvesting Regulations and Practices for Threatened Medicinal Plants on Public and Private Lands in the Southeast

Laramie Smith, University of Georgia Dr. James Affolter, State Botanical Garden of Georgia and Department of Horticulture at the University of Georgia

As the herbal supplement and alternative health industries grow, foraging for wild medicinals is becoming a more common and profitable phenomenon. In addition to the financial incentive to harvest non-timber forest products (NTFPs), there is a cultural push to “return to the land.” These motivations have raised the prevalence of abusive foraging habits, such as poaching or over-harvesting, increasing the threat to certain useful plant species. Our project draws upon the literature and experiences of two stakeholder populations—foragers, and professionals in the field of resource management and conservation—to garner insights about how to improve our response to foraging abuses of threatened but profitable plant species native to the Southeast. We interviewed members from both populations and compiled a summary of their responses; compared current conservation rankings and practices to determine how well they reflected economic factors affecting plant populations; and conducted three case studies on potentially threatened native medicinal plants, assessing both alternative acquisition methods and potential therapeutic substitutes. While the project is on-going, initial results reveal three themes: conservation practices and policies do not adequately address plants that are at risk due to targeted collection for economic benefit; stakeholder populations (resource managers and foragers) do not interface effectively or frequently, but there is potential to work together based on a shared value set; viable alternatives exist for many threatened native medicinal plants, but these are understudied and only folklorically known. This pilot study suggests that foragers might already have the ideal tools for combating harvesting abuses within their own communities. If the foraging community and environmental regulators work in partnership, it should be possible to develop an interactive environmentalism that establishes a productive balance between use and preservation, economy and conservation. This could lead to a more integrated conservation model than those currently in place.