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This news story originally provided by The Charleston Gazette
September 5, 2004

Ecologist leads effort to rescue plants on mining, logging sites

By Tara Tuckwiller
Staff writer

ARTIE - Unfortunately for goldenseal, it likes to grow where coal and timber do.

It was unfortunate for Dean Myles, too. His job as an intern with the U.S. Department of Agriculture was to find patches of the elusive medicinal herb in Southern West Virginia for researchers to study.

He asked locals who had lived in the hollows for years, many of whom had long harvested medicinal herbs to treat their own ailments. They knew where the goldenseal was, all right. At least, where it had been.

"Every person I would talk to said, 'Oh, yeah, there's some up on the mountain, but they've stripped and timbered it away,'" Myles said. "Probably 50 percent said [the goldenseal] had been destroyed by mining and timbering."

And it wasn't just goldenseal. It was ginseng, cohosh, lady's slipper and trillium. Serviceberrry, dogwood, flame azalea and butternut. Native plants that provide medicine, extra cash, or simply beauty to the people of Southern West Virginia.

Some of the plants are quite picky about their habitat. They won't grow just anywhere. And their habitat was being destroyed.

Myles decided to try to rescue valuable plants that lay in the paths of bulldozers all over the coalfields. He launched the Conservation of Appalachian Medicinal Plants project at Mountain State University, where he was a student.

Now employed full time by the MSU Medicinal Botanicals Program, Myles has spent any moment he could spare this spring and summer searching out plants in danger. In the fall, when the plants are dormant, he and his cadre of volunteers - some ecologists like him, and some local people who just want to help - will move the plants to safe places where they can be used for teaching.

An educational walking trail at MSU, a research garden at the USDA center in Beaver, state parks, public schools and garden clubs will shelter the plants.

Recently, Myles visited a possible rescue site, 4,000 acres on a remote mountainside in Raleigh County that's scheduled for mountaintop removal. He inched his Chevy Blazer up a dead-end gravel road, then onto a tiny dirt road, then onto an even tinier dirt road - "an old access road for an old punch-hole coal mine," he explained.

Local wildcrafters hike up the dirt track to reach a stand of goldenseal that clings to the shady side of the steep mountain. After Myles relocates the plants, the mountain will probably be mined.

He pointed to a bare summit rising in the distance, part of the same ridge.

"You can see where they took the top of the mountain," he said. He turned around and faced the creek that split that ridge from the next one. That ridge will be mined, too. "It's like that everywhere," he said. "All through Dry Creek, Whites-ville ... It's pretty much one big surface mine."

How fast the habitat can be destroyed

At first, Myles had a hard time getting anyone to let him rescue the plants. Coal companies in Raleigh, Boone and Wyoming counties told him "no," citing "safety issues."

He had better luck with some of the land companies that actually own the property. He plans to search three more sites this fall, including 210 acres in Raleigh County that are to be logged.

Myles, 39, is originally from Daniels, in Raleigh County.

"I ginsenged for a long time, as a lot of people around here have to do to supplement their incomes," he said.

As he pursued his degree, he turned his interest in medicinal plants toward research - specifically, whether changes in goldenseal's environment hurt it or weaken its medicinal quality.

Preliminary results show that they do. For example, if you cut down the trees that shade a stand of goldenseal, the extra sunlight will throw the levels of two medicinal alkaloids in the plant out of whack, reducing its value.

That is, if the plant survives at all.

"If you take a woodland plant that's thriving in shade, and cut the timber off of it, it completely changes its habitat," Myles said. "It gets burnt. That kills it off early. It doesn't get a chance to store the amount of energy it needs for overwintering."

Myles noted the changes in a report he wrote on the project.

"I have now seen firsthand how fast the habitat, populations of plants, and entire ecosystems can be destroyed," he wrote.

"One natural population of goldenseal that I observed in a healthy forest in August 2003 is now extinct, and the forest is a desolate mountain, stripped of its trees and wildlife for a coal mine operation."

Goldenseal on protected lists in 9 states, but not in W.Va.

The Indians used goldenseal for sore throats. White settlers used it to cure pinkeye. Myles tells of a local woman who drank goldenseal tea to treat her gum disease. It worked, because berberine - one of the alkaloids in goldenseal that Myles was studying - is an antibiotic.

But that's not why the price of a pound of dried goldenseal root leaped from $8 to $100 in the 1990s. Word had gotten around that you could fool a drug urinalysis by taking goldenseal beforehand, a myth that was disproved by a National Institutes of Health study in 1998.

Goldenseal's popularity remains high, however. It sells for about $66 a pound on the world market ($17 locally). Because a mature plant yields a root that weighs maybe a tenth of an ounce soaking wet, overharvesting is a danger.

Goldenseal, along with ginseng, is listed in Appendix II of the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, which regulates international trade of such plants. In 1997, the World Wildlife Fund named goldenseal as one of the 10 most threatened species in international trade.

Goldenseal grows only in the northeastern quarter of the United States, and usually only in thin groups in very specific microclimates (at the head of an ephemeral stream on a north- or east-facing slope with rich soil that remains constantly moist and is shaded by large deciduous trees).

Nine states consider goldenseal endangered or threatened, but not West Virginia.

"I don't think the state will ever put ginseng or goldenseal on the endangered species list because of coal mining," Myles said. "Nobody wants to stop the production of coal."

To contact staff writer Tara Tuckwiller, use e-mail or call 348-5189.

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