The Local newsletter is your free, daily guide to life in Colorado. For locals, by locals. Sign up today!
The Plant’s lacy, fernlike fronds were just starting to yellow, one branch standing out against an otherwise green background on a high plateau in southwestern Colorado. Kelly Kindscher, an ethnobotanist with the Kansas Biological Survey who studies culturally significant plants around the Southwest, stomped a shovel into the ground around the base of the plant, called oshá. The blade broke through its rhizomes, pieces of a root system that fans out through the soil. He shook loose the dirt clinging to the roots’ nooks and slipped a finger into the cluster to isolate a single strand, showing white marrow through its dark, hardened exterior. An astringent smell wafted from the roots. Kindscher, 65, fiddled with the plant while attempting to explain the questions that surround it, including who can and should benefit from its healing properties. For the past decade, Kindscher has been studying oshá, trying to supply data for the search for answers.
Oshá resembles a tall, leggy version of parsley. In the Centennial State, the plant—also known as bear root and Colorado cough root, among other names—grows primarily in the Four Corners region, between 9,000 and 11,000 feet in elevation, but its habitat ranges from northern Mexico’s mountains to the central Rockies. I caught up with Kindscher on an afternoon in late summer, when the plant’s leaves yellow as it funnels its energy back into its roots for winter.
It’s this time of the year that the treasured roots—often used to ease a variety of ailments, including colds, sore throats, indigestion, and asthma—are dug up by harvesters. Those pickers include members of several Native American tribes that consider oshá sacred and use it as medicine; traditional Hispanic healers in southern Colorado and New Mexico; and those who wish to gather it for personal use or to sell to herbal product companies. Because oshá is almost impossible for farmers to cultivate in mass quantities, it must be “wildcrafted,” or harvested from the woods. The U.S. Forest Service, the federal agency that oversees the bulk of oshá habitat (although it can sometimes be found on private land), does not issue permits for commercial collection of oshá in its Rocky Mountain or Southwestern regions. Yet it’s still somehow widely available to order online or purchase at herbal shops, where the knot of roots in Kindscher’s hand would sell for roughly $200 per pound.
“It’s hush-hush where any company gets its herbal products with oshá from,” Kindscher says, “because almost none of it is legal harvest.”
Kindscher’s research takes him to remote mountain passes and plateaus in the Rio Grande, San Juan, and Uncompahgre national forests in western and southern Colorado. Lately, he’s focused on oshá’s abundance, which may be threatened due to a variety of factors, including increased demand, damage from recreational vehicles and grazing livestock in national forests, and climate change. At a site on the Uncompahgre Plateau, he strides out 100 paces from the road and sets a perimeter. He samples locations throughout the area and estimates how much oshá is growing at one plot, then walks another 20 paces, passing by pines and scrambling over deadfall, and estimates again. Some sites register zeros. Others show 25 percent or 50 percent oshá.
“It’s all about averages,” he says. At one site, he estimates about 70 percent of the knee-high carpet of green below the aspens is oshá, about as dense as it’s ever found. Oshá is a patchy, finicky plant that simply doesn’t grow everywhere, Kindscher says. So far, science has been unable to explain why.
The ethnobotanist’s work to study oshá is funded by the Forest Service and the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA), a trade group, both of which are interested in understanding oshá’s predilections. As a land manager, the Forest Service wants to understand how best to protect and regulate collection of the desirable flora. The AHPA’s interest is ultimately ensuring its member businesses can sell a variety of herbal goods— including those that contain oshá—to U.S. consumers.
Regardless of the potentially competing concerns, Kindscher’s investigations began with the question of sustainable harvest. He wanted to know more about the plant’s ability to rebound from collection, given that harvesting it requires removing its roots. After five years of digging up varying quantities of mature oshá roots from research plots and watching how the plant rejuvenated, he was encouraged. Harvested at lower rates, and given some years to recover, oshá populations remained stable, often regrowing from rhizomes inevitably missed during harvest.
In a paper published in Economic Botany in 2019, Kindscher reported that stands where 33 percent of oshá was harvested rebounded after five years. But for ease of management for the Forest Service, he recommended allowing half of a plant’s roots, a more readily visualized share, to be taken once every 10 years. If the Forest Service wanted to permit commercial harvest, it could give harvesters 10 plots, he suggested, which could each be harvested once a decade. The recommendation makes logical sense, but the agency has yet to determine if there’s a way to manage a system that builds in, and enforces, 10 years’ rest between harvests.
As an ethnobotanist, though, the heart of Kindscher’s research lies not in systems to regulate plants but in people’s relationships to flora, so he has spent many hours talking with people who consume this plant—specifically Native Americans and other Indigenous peoples. At least 15 tribes—including the Apache, Diné (Navajo), Pueblo, and Southern Ute, among others—across the West have a relationship to oshá, using it to battle colds, coughs, diarrhea, pneumonia, fever, stomachaches, ulcers, and even rattlesnake bites. Some of them make pilgrimages to collect it in Colorado from as far away as the Great Plains, closer to Kindscher’s home in Kansas, where he is also a professor of environmental studies at the University of Kansas.
The crux of the controversy around oshá lies here: Some tribal members who have spoken to Kindscher, or to officials in the Forest Service, push back against the notion of commodifying a deeply revered plant, even if the Forest Service could manage to do it. In other words, some Native Americans have asked the Forest Service to deny requests from herbal medicine businesses—a $22.8 billion industry in the United States—to create a large-scale commercial permitting system for oshá on Forest Service land. “Oshá is the most sacred plant I know,” Kindscher says. “Most plants are considered sacred at some level to Native folks or Indigenous people, but there’s a special relationship to oshá.”
Starting in the 1850s, Native Americans were prohibited from collecting oshá in national forests as part of their expulsion from their homelands to federally established reservations. In recent decades, particularly with the enactment of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act in 1990, federal agencies have been required to consult tribes more often about managing public lands. As such, the Forest Service is striving to honor Native peoples’ traditional uses of these public lands as well as the treaties that promised hunting, fishing, and gathering rights on those lands.
In recognition of those formal promises, tribal members do not need permits to harvest oshá or other so-called forest products, including trees or other plants that are part of spiritual or traditional practices. They still seek permission, says Price Heiner, forest archaeologist and heritage program manager with the Rio Grande National Forest, in part to ensure Forest Service law enforcement officers checking for permits don’t disturb ceremonies performed while collecting this plant.
Forest Service staff tasked with managing forest products tend to describe oshá as a common plant that’s low on their list of concerns, beyond the basic task of keeping common plants common. But Heiner’s work in the heritage program serves a different set of stakeholders, and he’s heard from tribal members that, in places where they have collected oshá for centuries, the plant is vanishing. “The communities that traditionally use it are alarmed that it’s just disappearing,” Heiner says. Using some of Kindscher’s most recent research on identifying oshá populations, Heiner and other Forest Service staffers in the region are trying to find out how it grows, and where it’s growing well, so they can help tribal members locate it.
Oshá, which can be easily confused with toxic poison hemlock, seems to need the deep, rich, moist, well-draining soils that are often found in spruce-fir forests. But the plant also thrives in mountain meadows, flashing qualities of what forest managers call a disturbance species: one that seizes the opportunity of a wildfire, insect epidemic, or even a logging clear-cut to flourish in the newly available sunlight.
Researchers know that despite the apparent flexibility in where it grows, oshá could still be affected by climate change. As the West warms up and dries out, oshá’s habitat might be pushed to even higher elevations or higher latitudes. Or, as wildfires and pine beetles clear new meadows, the plant might flourish. Right now, it’s anyone’s guess. To protect oshá and other at-risk species as the planet heats up, the Forest Service is transitioning to a framework that replaces management strategies that try to shield individual sensitive species with ones that comprehensively preserve ecosystems for the sake of all species they support. During that transition, officials at some of the national forests with oshá populations will reconsider the threats it might be facing.
Climate change won’t be the only discussion point, though. Re-evaluating oshá will also mean looking at growing commercial interest because, as one Forest Service employee says, “we know that plants from national forest lands end up for sale.”
The global value of traded medicinal and aromatic plants and products was estimated at $3.3 billion in 2018, a near threefold increase since 1998, according to a report from Traffic, a United Kingdom–based nongovernmental organization focused on the wild animal and plant trade. Only a fraction of the plants sold in 2018—roughly eight percent—had ever been assessed against the extinction threat criteria used by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the world’s most comprehensive information source on the global extinction risk status of animal, fungus, and plant species. For comparison, 68 percent of known vertebrate animals have been assessed.
Plants are protected in this country under cornerstone federal wildlife laws to protect biodiversity, such as the Endangered Species Act and the Lacey Act, a law that prohibits trade in illegally taken fish, wildlife, and plants. But plant conservation advocates argue that because plants are not, by definition, considered wildlife, they are overlooked and underfunded when it comes to assessing threats, such as their collection and sale. A 2019 paper published in the journal Plants, People, Planet, a publication by the New Phytologist Foundation, a plant-science-focused not-for-profit, contends, “traceability and documentation within this trade is often opaque…[and] even less is understood about the patterns, processes, and mechanisms of illegal trade in plants.”
The opaqueness around how oshá ends up for sale commercially demonstrates that. For decades, small-scale commercial harvesters blended in with permitted personal-use collectors, who can legally take varying amounts from Forest Service lands. None seemed to pose a serious threat to oshá and largely slipped by undetected if collection was done illegally. After all, a single national forest can cover millions of acres, and it’s impossible for rangers to have eyes everywhere. When the Forest Service adopted a new definition for “sustainable” harvest in 2004, concerns and questions about what might qualify as sustainable harvest for oshá arose, particularly because plants for which the roots are collected rank among those most prone to overharvesting. In Kindscher’s interviews with Forest Service staffers and oshá collectors, he has found no evidence of any national forest using a commercial permitting system. Only one national forest—San Juan National Forest—said it used to issue small-scale commercial permits, but it no longer does. The change in the level of attention being paid to protecting oshá has landed some legacy collectors in legal trouble.
When I met Kindscher near his research sites in southwestern Colorado, we could look over to a gap in the aspens where a harvester who lived near Bedrock, in Montrose County, said he’d twice been arrested for harvesting the plant and served two years in prison for it. In 2008, a pair of employees from an herbal shop in Grand Junction were caught with about 300 pounds of root, the Durango Herald reported, and in 2009, four members of a family from Arizona were fined $1,000 each for harvesting 304 pounds of oshá root near Mancos and selling it at flea markets around the Four Corners area.
Those arrests got former forest archaeologist Angie Krall thinking about the confusion and frustration among people—many of whom had been harvesting it on Forest Service land unmolested for decades—who want to make use of this plant commercially. With so much interest in oshá and at least two major barriers—tribes’ wishes and the question of how to implement and enforce commercial harvest—the Forest Service finds itself in a pinch. When she started working with the Rio Grande National Forest in 2008, Krall became aware of the need to oversee oshá as a culturally important plant. She knew then that herbal products companies were pressuring the Forest Service for better access to it, and now people were getting in trouble for trying to meet that demand illegally. Krall, who is currently a deputy district ranger in the Carson National Forest in New Mexico, says herb companies want to have a locally available source where they can ethically harvest. But herbal companies are losing patience with a bureaucracy that had seemed to be making progress on addressing that want, only to then stall.
Daniel Gagnon, owner of Herbs, Etc., based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, explains the bafflement of those in the herbal products business. It’s difficult to reconcile how it’s OK for the Forest Service to log thousands of acres of trees, he says, with the fact that the agency can’t find a way to authorize responsible collection of this plant. Says Gagnon: “Come on, guys, you let clear-cut cutting of trees, but you won’t allow oshá to be harvested on a sustainable basis?”
Herbs, Etc. gets its oshá in New Mexico. The northern New Mexico families Gagnon works with have harvested oshá for decades; they have supplied his shop and manufacturing facility with 400 to 500 pounds of the herb each year. “They’ve got their place,” he says, adding that he has never asked where their harvesting grounds are located. With regard to commercial permits for collection on public land, he says, “the pickers do that for us.” He admits, however, that he has never asked to see the permits. But the Southwest regional Forest Service office says it does not issue permits for commercial collection of oshá. To that, Gagnon says, “That’s interesting. That’s not what I’ve been told by my harvesters, who say they’ve gotten permits in the past from the Forest Service office.”
Conceivably, commercial permits could offer the plant some protection by more closely regulating how much is harvested and from where. When the Forest Service convened meetings in 2018 between affected tribes and members of the herbal business community, Gagnon saw a willingness to explore large-scale commercial permits and, perhaps, a system of delineating tribal and commercial harvest areas. Then, he says, the effort lost momentum as Forest Service staff retired or changed jobs and the pandemic hit. Now, according to Krall, the Forest Service seems to be holding to honoring tribes’ wishes to keep oshá noncommoditized.
“We definitely hold [oshá] as one of our sacred medicines,” says Sean Valdez, heritage specialist with the Jicarilla Apache Nation. “It wouldn’t be right, from a holistic standpoint, to privatize something that’s a natural resource and was practically given to us and has evolved into something that we’re all able to use. If you were to commercialize it or privatize it, it would be abusing, sincerely, the culture.”
His views of oshá come from his grandmother, who prescribed it as a cure for everything from headaches to sore throats. The Jicarilla Apache Nation’s reservation in northern New Mexico, though displaced from the area members historically occupied, includes multiple places where they manage and collect oshá for themselves—without permits or intrusions. Still, they make pilgrimages elsewhere into the Rocky Mountains, including in Colorado, to collect the flora in their traditional lands. “But we have not really found a sustainable source [outside the reservation] that wasn’t already being used or already known about,” he says, citing harvesting by other tribes. “Oshá does wear thin, and it doesn’t grow everywhere, but in our traditional homelands, everything was within reach and within a distance that one person could go and get what they needed.”
When I reached Krall to talk about the tribes’ desires, she happened to be chewing a little of the oshá root she had collected with a personal-use permit the previous year. Allergies were bothering her, and she says oshá “puts a little warm blanket on my throat when I’m all scratchy like this.” Her stash amounts to a small plastic bag filled with dark brown sticks, the largest of which she boils for tea.
“I’m so torn by it, because it is a medicine, and it would be nice to have more access to such a powerful medicine. Obviously, I’m a believer,” she says. “I swear oshá has saved me on many occasions, but for tribes, the plant is ceremonial.”
I asked if she was worried demand could skyrocket if more people knew about this herb. “Totally,” she says. “In fact, I worry just talking to you.”
The American Herbal Products Association, based in Maryland, was founded in 1982 to protect consumer access to herbs by engaging with regulatory agencies that oversee medicinal products, endangered species, and the public lands from which some herbs are wild-sourced. The association also lobbies federal and local governments about policies that could affect herbal products and works with scientific organizations to study and promote herbs. It also works with the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention, which publishes the U.S. Pharmacopeia, an annual publication of standards for medicines, food ingredients, and dietary supplements.
The AHPA has been conscious of its relationship with wild plant collection since its beginning, says Holly Johnson, the AHPA’s chief science officer. An example of the organization’s attention to wild plant conservation came with the lady’s slipper orchid, she says, which saw rampant demand after it was listed in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia as a remedy for nervousness or as a sedative in the late 1800s and subsequently became endangered in the wild. In 1988, the AHPA asked its members—who are growers, manufacturers, and sellers of herbal and botanical products—to refrain from trading in wild-harvested lady’s slipper orchids. It still does.
That’s not the case with all plants that might be straddling the at-risk line. For herbs such as wild American ginseng, saw palmetto, and oshá—all of which the AHPA sees as deserving of protections but able to withstand some harvest—the group instead produces a “sustainable harvest brochure” for its members. The online brochure encourages following local permitting rules and, notably, points to the San Juan National Forest in southwestern Colorado as an example of a forest where commercial permits are available. But that forest office no longer issues commercial permits, even for small-scale commercial harvest. (When 5280 pointed this out to Johnson, she said the AHPA was planning to change the brochure; however, at press time that still hadn’t happened.)
Although it’s possible the AHPA simply hadn’t updated its brochure, it’s also plausible the organization is taking advantage of an evolving and complicated process to address the harvesting of oshá across more than 45 national forests in seven Western states. Still, asked if she knew of a public land agency issuing commercial permits, Johnson says she “cannot confirm or deny. I don’t have that detail.”
The roughly $5,000 the AHPA has given each year for 10 years to support Kindscher’s research suggests the organization does, however, want reputable data in the search for how much oshá is out there, what effect wild harvesting is having on it, and whether it’s being depleted. Rather than lean on hunches, Johnson says, “We want to use those data to influence rational regulation and say: Here’s what’s actually happening out there in these national forests.”
But that effort tackles only half of the problem: the dearth of science and the logistical challenges the Forest Service faces in permitting commercial collection. It doesn’t address the tribes’ requests that oshá remain off-limits to commercial harvest. Although Johnson says it has been “of utmost priority for us to include [tribal members] in our conversations about the health of the wild populations and the harvest,” she also says that recent fieldwork suggests promising findings—for AHPA members. She declined to comment on tribal members’ perspectives that this is not a plant to be commodified.
“The data show that there’s tons of this plant around,” she says. “What we’re hearing is the wild populations are thriving in multiple areas, and that’s great and I think should be considered when we talk about the different types of permitting systems and what’s commercially viable.”
Even the best attempts to protect oshá and honor its sanctity to Native American tribes while still bringing its healing properties to a larger slice of the population can founder in this complex and shifting landscape. Elliott Brinkley, who owns Dancing Willow Herbs in Durango, is adamant that collecting the herb be done ethically, sustainably, and reverently. As such, she is the only person on her staff who harvests the plant.
Last year, she went to the San Juan National Forest office and obtained a permit to collect a few pounds of oshá. Brinkley says she was clear with the Forest Service that she was collecting for retail sale at her shop. That permit may have been issued in error, though. At one time, the San Juan National Forest permitted the commercial collection of up to five pounds of oshá annually (limited to 10 percent of the plants in a certain area), but it recently began to restrict harvesting to only tribal members for medicinal or ceremonial purposes. However, it’s obvious the change has created confusion. When asked, not even the public information officer at San Juan National Forest could say with authority when the policy was implemented.
Brinkley could, of course, order oshá from one of the herbal companies that supplies many other products she sells. But, she says, “I have no idea where that’s coming from, and I don’t know if I trust that.”
The changes at San Juan National Forest may force Brinkley to adjust this year—but she’s not sure how. Seeking a patch on private property is an option, but she prefers to source from larger stands to avoid straining any individual cluster of plants. Writing it out of her products is a possibility, too. But Brinkley says she lives in a place with abundant oshá and wants to bring the plant’s healing properties to her community. If she does so in a careful and respectful way and makes oshá available for sale, she reasons, perhaps that would deter people from going into the forest to dig it up themselves. “It feels like the way we were doing it was still really respectful and that the medicine was helping a lot of people, so we want to continue doing things the way we were,” she says, adding that she only took about a quarter of the amount she was permitted for in 2021. “But I am considering different options and ways to do better and figure out how to navigate this world we’re all living in.”
For Valdez, with the Jicarilla Apache Nation, it’s important that oshá is treated reverently and not monetized. He realizes that may be a big ask in today’s world. “It’s not anything that’s going to be stopped by anybody’s words, but at the same time, we would hope people would have the best interest, that they’d hope to protect it and respect the people that were here before,” he says. What’s most critical to Valdez, though, is that this special plant doesn’t disappear from the West entirely. He says he wants it to be “preserved so there’s not really any question about it being sustainable for the future.”