Walk a few steps into any forested area on Prince Edward Island and the chances are good that you will encounter a low-growing shrub with flat green needles called the eastern yew.
The plant, better known as ground hemlock, is so common as to be unremarkable. Yet in the past few months it has become green gold -- and the subject of intense scrutiny because of the growing problem of plant theft from island woodlots.
Unnoticed until a couple of years ago, ground hemlock contains paclitaxel, which can be synthesized into Taxol, a drug that pharmaceutical firms such as Bristol-Myers Squibb manufacture to fight breast and ovarian cancer -- diseases that kill about 7,000 Canadians annually.
Paclitaxel first came to light in 1963, when researchers in North Carolina isolated the cancer fighter from the bark of the Pacific yew. Since then, harvesters have largely stripped away the plant in the United States.
What makes PEI's supply of ground hemlock unique is that, unlike in Quebec and New Brunswick where moose and deer dine on the plant, the island has no natural predators attracted to the hemlock -- unless you count the illegal harvesters.
Currently, two main ground-hemlock companies operate on the island, supplying about eight drug firms. Harvesters use pruning shears to clip ground-hemlock tips, collecting them in bags and taking them to buying stations run by the companies. Workers weigh the hemlock, take note of the quality and ensure that it was properly cut. They also note the land it came from.
The companies pay $1.32 a kilogram to the harvesters and 24.4 cents a kilo to landowners for the right to harvest on their property. The companies, in turn, receive $2.20 a kilo from the drug firms.
It doesn't seem like much, but transform the ground hemlock into paclitaxel and suddenly it's worth a lot more: A kilogram of the substance (the result of 35,000 kilos of fresh ground-hemlock tips) is worth $150,000 to $200,000 (U.S.).
PEI's ground-hemlock market is estimated to be worth as much as $150-million a year.
No wonder, then, stories such as Mike Appleton's are becoming increasingly common. Last year, Mr. Appleton, who had contracted with one of the ground-hemlock companies, discovered that thieves had backed a truck onto his property in PEI's hilly central region and clipped four acres' worth of the plant. They also cleaned two acres from a bordering property as well as an acre from a third neighbour.
Mr. Appleton contacted police, but was told that unless he photographed thieves committing the crime or caught them in the act, nothing could be done.
Thieves sell the hemlock to the buying stations. Sometimes they have a friend who is harvesting property and tuck their bags in with his. In cases where the companies have found harvesters including stolen hemlock with their bags, they stopped working with them.
Stuart Cameron, a tree physiologist and ground-hemlock researcher with the Canadian Forestry Service in New Brunswick, maintains that theft is a small problem.
He notes that about 680,000 kilos of ground hemlock will probably be harvested on PEI this year. "Theft will not be a huge part of that," Dr. Cameron says.
"It's a real business. It's not just some sort of fly-by-night thing. The guys who are doing the harvesting are fairly serious about this and it's in their best interest that they don't put up with it. They're not cowboys."
But not everyone is so sure.
PEI's Public Forest Council, an advisory group that deals with issues on public land, has five documented cases of hemlock theft from provincial property before the RCMP.
"It's getting a little Wild West out there," says Ian MacQuarrie, who chairs the council. "People tell me there are harvesters at night wearing miner's helmets and using two-way radios."
At the request of the provincial Forestry Minister, the council prepared a report on the theft of ground hemlock, which it submitted to the government last week.
However, it's not just the theft that bothers Dr. MacQuarrie.
If properly harvested, ground hemlock will regenerate well and yield a sustainable harvest. Guidelines from the Canadian Forestry Service recommend clipping three years' growth off the top of the plants, pieces that are roughly six to eight inches long. Then, harvesters are supposed to leave the plants for three to four years before they cut them again.
But hemlock thieves aren't always so fastidious. "These guys just go in, rip, get as much as they can and get out as fast as they can," Dr. MacQuarrie says.
Unless the thefts are brought under control, he says, the entire PEI ground-hemlock industry may collapse.
Dr. MacQuarrie says one of the drug companies warned that lack of a legal, sustainable harvest could cause a U.S. Food and Drug Administration crackdown that would prevent ground hemlock from entering the United States. "They told me, and I have no reason to doubt them, that the whole wild harvest of hemlock on PEI -- legal or otherwise -- could come crashing to a halt if this situation isn't rectified."
He is calling for better regulation of the industry. Currently, harvesters are unlicensed, hemlock stands are untagged and the only record-keeping comes from the companies harvesting the plant.
No one has any idea how much ground hemlock is being harvested legally, let alone how much is being stolen, Dr. MacQuarrie says.
Eric Smith, research co-ordinator for New Brunswick-based Chatham Biotec Ltd., the largest hemlock harvester in Eastern Canada, agrees that independent third-party auditing is needed.
Even while the hemlock vanishes into thieves' bags at night, Dr. Cameron is hard at work on a project to help sustain the plant. Since the late 1990s, he has worked on a project to clone ground hemlock.
The Canadian Forestry Centre has 1,300 different specimens from across Eastern Canada and the northern United States and is testing them to find out which grow the fastest and have the highest levels of taxanes, the family of chemicals that includes paclitaxel. Out of those, they hope to come up with 10 to 50 plants that would contain double the taxane content and have double the growth rate of a woodland plant.
Such cultivars may be necessary, since, as Dr. MacQuarrie notes, the current guidelines for a sustainable harvest may not be stringent enough. He says casual site visits have convinced him that a three-year moratorium on clipped plants may not be long enough. "It may be a five-year return. It may be a 10-year return. But we need some very basic research on this in terms of what must really go into a sustainable harvest policy."
Charles Mandel is a freelance journalist based in Prince Edward Island.