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Jesuit sees hope cropping up for struggling Appalachia

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Mount Vernon, Ky.

To get a sense of the images some people carry in their heads about Appalachia, just take a look at the movie “Coal Miner’s Daughter”: environmental catastrophe, grinding poverty, bleak lives that trigger despair or the yearning to escape.

But when Jesuit Fr. Al Fritsch looks out his window in rural Kentucky, he sees something else. In the old-growth forests that still thrive in Appalachia, Fritsch sees incredible wealth -- and what’s more important, hope.

Managed creatively and responsibly, these forests could become the cornerstone of a sustainable way of life for the region, according to this unconventional Jesuit.

Perhaps his most intriguing case in point involves ginseng.

The ginseng root, which thrives in Appalachia’s old-growth forests, is popular these days in several wildly disparate markets. Usually processed into pills or powders, it is used by athletes as a performance enhancer, by the lovelorn as an aphrodisiac and by New Agers attracted by its mystique as an ancient Asian remedy and meditation aide.

Appalachia is already the center of a small but thriving ginseng business, and Fritsch thinks expansion in responsible fashion could provide an economic boon to the region -- and help conserve its forests to boot by providing alternatives to logging and mining.

While this kind of thinking could come from either a Harvard MBA or a Sierra Club specialist, it hasn’t. Instead Fritsch is leading the effort. And while environmental concern and economic progress are important to him, it’s not the core of what he’s about. Fritsch believes that in protecting the earth and serving people, he’s living out his priestly vows to carry the gospel to the world.

Think of him, therefore, as a sort of eco-minister.

He’s certainly not your typical eco-activist. He doesn’t picket the ranger station or chain himself to trees. Instead, he founded Appalachia Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit group he started in 1977 after working with the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington. The Appalachian group’s purpose is to help people find ways to live as responsible stewards of the earth.

Because of its location in the economically impoverished Appalachian region, the group concentrates on making science and technology responsive to the needs of low-income people. That translates into finding sustainable life-styles and work.

Oldest, most varied forest

While the group’s activity reaches into a variety of areas, one major concern for the past several years has been maintaining the health of the mixed mesophytic forest in Appalachia, the oldest and most varied temperate hardwood forest in the world. The forest is an economic asset to Kentucky because it provides timber for logging and an attraction for tourists.

Fritsch hopes to play up the tourism angle, arguing that it’s a more responsible way to profit from Appalachia’s natural resources. “We really believe that using a forest for recreation is far better than using it to cut out timber,” Fritsch said.

Not just any kind of recreation will do, however. In 1990, the group took on the cause of regulating the use of off-road vehicles in the forest. These can cause irreversible damage to the forest ecosystem.

“No one [in Kentucky] was talking about the use of off-road vehicles prior to our entry into this in 1990,” Fritsch said. So the group did talk about it, with the public and with decision-makers. It took seven years of work, but now the U.S. Forest Service has heavily restricted the use of off-road vehicles in Kentucky’s forests.

“We are making ethical distinctions. A person can’t just come into the forest and do any kind of recreation they want,” Fritsch said.

Fritsch’s most unconventional plan for the forest, however, is to develop the environmental and economic benefits of ginseng. With its natural canopy of oak, hickory, maple and poplar trees, the forest encourages the plant to grow naturally and has made Kentucky the primary exporter of wild ginseng root since the 1700s.

Ancient remedy

Ginseng is traditionally associated with China, where it was cultivated for its alleged healing properties as early as 400 B.C. Its name translates to “man root,” so named for its person-like shape.

Tradition has it that the root promotes longevity and stamina, cures depression, relieves stress, improves concentration and is useful against such ailments as headaches, insomnia, indigestion and even acne. It also supposedly boosts the male sex drive, making it a sort of proto-Viagra.

While Western medical authorities are quick to point out that most of these claims are undocumented, the ginseng root does apparently produce a chemical called ginsenoside that can boost absorption of protein, fat and sugar. A few studies have shown a positive effect from ginsenoside on slowing down aging in cells.

Whatever the case, ginseng is in demand and can mean big bucks for harvesters. China, Korea, the United States and Canada are the main exporters of the root, though the Asian version is not natural. Due to deforestation, China does not have its own natural ginseng. Much of the U.S. production comes from the Appalachian regions of Kentucky.

The ginseng root sold in Asia has always been a high quality, wild root. It might sell for $400 to $600 per pound. A cultivated root of low quality might bring only $12 per pound. Fritsch believes the key is for rural Appalachian growers to produce high-quality root while educating consumers about the superiority of their product.

For decades, Kentuckians have hunted ginseng, dug its roots and replanted its seed. With today’s expanding market, however, inexperienced people are scouring the forest in growing numbers. Often they dig up the roots too early, before the plant has developed seed.

Fritsch estimates that within five years, ginseng could be an endangered species as a result of irresponsible digging and loss of forest cover to the logging industry.

So, in 1999, the Kentucky Jesuit is trying to save the herb that was first documented by a French Jesuit, Paul-Emile Jartoux, in 1714. Jartoux wrote an article about the ginseng he found in China. Within a year or so, another French Jesuit, Joseph-Francois Lafitau, identified ginseng in Canada.

“It is only a matter of a few years when there will be no wild ginseng at all,” Fritsch said. “And so we’re hoping that we will get something going that will save this and at the same time will get the government involved with stopping the poaching and stopping the harvesting of wild ginseng.”

If Fritsch’s group can prove how valuable the root is to enough people, they can save the plant and the forest and help people in an impoverished region earn money.

Fritsch wants to share the information he gathers with the approximately 220,000 owners of small tracts of Kentucky woodland with a north slope suitable for growing ginseng. Almost 93 percent of all forestland in Kentucky is privately held.

One challenge, according to Fritsch, is to encourage farmers to focus on a few sustainable crops rather than chasing after new possibilities.

“A lot of people take the approach that any type of material in the forest, any type of forest product is good. We don’t take that approach,” Fritsch said. “We say that if you focus on a lot of forest products, you are going to destroy them. ... Instead, we say let’s focus on a few that we can replicate in some fashion.”

Pesticides a problem

Another key issue is pesticides, which some farmers are tempted to use in environmentally damaging ways. Fritsch is trying to convince farmers that doing so harms the ecosystem and undercuts their own future profitability.

Most U.S. consumers know little about where herbal remedies come from. They assume that because it is “herbal,” it is natural and good for them. However, these herbal remedies are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration and might be cultivated with chemicals. Fritsch said that cultivated ginseng often contains pesticides.

“People are making wild claims on their labels when they are marketing their product,” said a development expert working with Fritsch. “But what you have to do is actually contact the grower or contact the producer and have them send you information about their harvesting practices. If they’re saying organic and produced in nature, you have to get, for your own satisfaction, what they mean by those claims.”

Syl Yunker is a ginseng purist who doesn’t use chemicals on his crop. He’s working with Fritsch’s group on launching the Appalachian Ginseng Foundation, a group of growers and those interested in ecologically compatible economic development.

After years of studying the plant and markets, Yunker has developed a method of growing “virtually wild” ginseng from seed planted on his forest property in eastern Kentucky.

Yunker formed the Boone-Sang Cooperative, which now has approximately 30 members, a third of whom are growers and the rest of whom are interested and supportive of the initiative. Cooperative members share information about growing and marketing. Working together, they could have a larger quantity of ginseng to sell, which is what most buyers are interested in.

In 1995 Yunker went to China, the best market for wild ginseng, to find out what buyers would pay for his root. They asked how many tons he could supply. This points out the need for joint marketing efforts because small growers do not produce tons.

Yunker is still researching the market and his product. He recently sent his root to the University of Philadelphia to have its contents tested to determine its quality. The cooperative also completed a survey of 300 buyers and growers and established a standard grading system that could help growers know what their product is worth.

After more than 50 years of studying ginseng, Yunker believes it is a product that can help people earn money while it saves the forest.

At the same time, Fritsch isn’t putting all his eggs into ginseng’s basket. The group is also looking into the use of other forest products, such as kudzu, an exotic plant that was introduced to Kentucky as ground cover to stabilize hillsides. Because the climate is right, kudzu grows prolifically. However, it could harm the forest.

“The Japanese, where it originated, cultivated it and they can use all the kudzu root we can send them,” Fritsch said. But first Appalachians will have to address such questions as how to dry it and ship it.

Facing skepticism

Fritsch knows there’s considerable skepticism in some environmental circles about whether profit and protection can mix in the way he envisions. He recalls asking a Native American to be a guest on Fritsch’s television show, “Earth Healing,” which airs monthly on WOBZ in London, Ky. Fritsch wanted to do a program about gathering in the wild.

The potential guest refused. “He said we are working with Americans who do not have a sense of a moral ethic about how to gather things. That can’t be taught at the same time that you are identifying materials that could be gathered,” Fritsch recalled.

The Native American felt that giving people some information about gathering, rather than a complete understanding about the interdependence of forest species, could hasten the destruction of the woodlands.

The Jesuit is not naive about the challenges he faces. “Security is a big problem. Market is a big problem. Making a distinction for the public is a big problem. And these pesticides that are used on cultivated ginseng, those are all big problems. So we’re trying to tackle all of these at the same time,” Fritsch said.

In so doing, Fritsch sees himself walking the path of his Jesuit confreres from centuries past, doing all things to the glory of God. In this case, he’s helping to build a future in a place that too often seems burdened with a dying past.

National Catholic Reporter, January 22, 1999