The Orchid Thieves

America’s Parks are the Scene of the Crime for Plant Theft

Park biologist Mike Owen had been on the job only two months when he got a startling phone call. It was the park manager. Come to the parking lot, he said. What happened next would inspire a book and, coming this fall, a movie starring Nicholas Cage. Owen headed to the main parking lot of southern Florida’s Fakahatchee Strand State Park, which harbors the nation’s largest concentration of wild orchids.

He quickly noticed the bags filled with orchids, which had been plucked from his park by the lanky guy now standing near a flatbed truck. Park manager Mike Petty had stopped the nonplussed thief and his three Seminole Indian companions as they emerged from the woods carrying their bounty.

Within the pillowcases and garbage bags were such rarities as the ghost orchid, which thief John Laroche hoped to propagate. "I wanted to make a dollar but I really want the plants to be saved from extinction," he told author Susan Orlean, as recounted in her book, The Orchid Thief.

"I had never seen some of these species [before]. I never heard of some of them," recalls Owen. "We never had the chance to see that many species in one place." Ninety-four plants, he counted. Nearly all died. "I know of about three or four that still survive," Owen says nearly a decade later. "And I moved them back the next day! Put "em right back in the swamp."

Plant pilfering is a persistent, if little-known, problem at a wide range of public places: public parks, botanical gardens, national forests, and acreage managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Most troubling, at least some national parks are also targets. The "10 Most Endangered National Parks" list published by the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) includes some that incidentally attract poachers, including Mojave National Preserve (barrel cactus), Big Cypress National Preserve (saw palmetto berries) and Great Smoky Mountains National Park (ginseng).

While tallying the main internal threats to national parks, the General Accounting Office in 1996 listed: commercial development and private in-holdings, invasive plants and animals overtaking natives, and illegal activities, particularly poaching of plants and animals.

"I think it’s more widespread than even I understand at this point," says Randy Rasmussen, acting regional director for NPCA’s southwest regional office. "People are stealing the resources that some national parks were created to protect."

Some floral bouquets, typically in Europe but also in the U.S., are adorned with salal branches picked from Washington’s Olympic National Park. Another target there is moss, used to make tiny trees for model railroads. A bust two years ago nabbed six men for stripping more than 450 bags of moss from a quarter-mile wide swath of forest on each side of the road. Chief ranger Curt Sauer pulls out slides used as evidence in criminal cases. "See this tree?" he asks, pointing to a brown mass. "It should be green all the way up [from moss]. That was three people in about two hours."

Mushroom picking is prohibited at Oregon’s Crater Lake National Park, yet fungifiles seem undaunted there and at Olympic Park. Park managers told congressional investigators that the "multimillion-dollar, largely unregulated industry could damage forest ecosystems."

Elsewhere, a thin floral-industry greenery called galax is plucked from scenic Blue Ridge Parkway, which connects Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains national parks. "They’re catching them down there on a regular basis," Dennis Burnett, the National Park Service’s (NPS) law enforcement administrator, says of galax thieves. NPS has made news by marking galax with a powdered marker and by using an environmentally safe dye on the roots of ginseng in the Smokies—all to prove they belong to the parks. "Most of this is for commercial purposes," Burnett says of the thefts. "Plants are in trouble anytime there’s a dollar to be made," he says. But whim and desire also spur their share of thefts.

When Everglades National Park built its Mahogany Hammock Trail, rangers noticed within two months that every rare tropical "hand fern" within arm’s reach had been swiped from the three trees that bore them. Key Largo Hammocks State Botanical Site in southern Florida nurtured the nation’s largest West Indian mahogany tree—that is, until someone lopped off its top. Investigators concluded the thief wanted the orchid, and perhaps bromeliads, that graced its upper branches but not its valuable wood. It was left to rot.

At Mounts Botanical Garden in West Palm Beach, Carolyn Saft has told participants in her potting class that orchids not only have eyes, but legs. "Staff cannot watch everything. The threat of thefts means that some interesting plants are never displayed to the public," agrees Charles Hubbach, longtime director of plant collections at Fairchild Tropical Garden in Coral Gables, Florida. There, visitors have snagged new plants and clipped small cuttings. More commonly, they’ve stolen seeds, even seeds "bagged and tagged on the plant."

"Casual thieves who steal a cutting or seeds may allow them to die," Hubbach laments. Occasionally, he adds, rare plants "are taken by knowledgeable people. They are either stolen to be hidden away in a private collection or for sale to a knowledgeable enthusiast. Some plant collectors are so obsessive that they can rationalize almost anything."

Botanist Daniel F. Austin knows about obsession. He never reveals exact locations of his rare plant finds when publishing professional articles. He suspects thieves have followed him during treks into the forbidding swamp; sometimes, he would discover a rare plant, then, a week or two later, it was gone. "They see your truck or your car parked in a particular place. They say, "Hmmm, I know this guy,"" theorizes Austin, professor emeritus of Florida Atlantic University.

A common excuse park biologist Jim Duquesnel hears from thieves is that they didn’t think the land belonged to anyone. "My comeback is, "Do you really think there’s land in the U.S. that somebody doesn’t own?…If you don’t know whose land it is, don’t assume it’s nobody"s," says Duquesnel. He protects Key Largo Hammocks State Botanical Site, where an Alabaman once chainsawed his way to the nation’s largest crabwood tree. "He was a woodworker, and he needed crabwood for a project," Duquesnel says. "He got arrested."

Biologist Mike Owen and orchid thief John Laroche will be portrayed in the film Adaptation, inspired by Orlean’s bestseller. Will the film become the rallying cry for lowly plants like Free Willy for performing orcas or Chicken Run for factory-farmed fowl? Don’t count on it. Nicholas Cage plays a sexually frustrated screenwriter struggling to adapt The Orchid Thief for the big screen. So even a film about the best-known caper of the past decade doesn’t take the subject head-on.