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How incarcerated people are helping to restore a fragile ecosystem » Yale Climate Connections

In prisons across Western states, incarcerated people are raising tens of thousands of plants to restore sagebrush habitat, a vanishing ecosystem home to the iconic endangered greater sage-grouse and hundreds of other species. 

Participants in the Sagebrush in Prisons Project, coordinated by the nonprofit conservation group Institute for Applied Ecology, sow about half a million sagebrush seeds each year and nurse the young plants for several months. In the fall, the seedlings are handed off to partners so they can be transplanted into areas of sagebrush steppe damaged by wildfire. 

Sagebrush grows in about a dozen states from the Dakotas to California. Development destroyed much of this habitat. Now wildfires and invasive species threaten what remains. 

Yale Climate Connections spoke with Karen Hall, Alyson Singer, and Patrick Kirk about the Sagebrush in Prisons program, which uses a mix of paid and unpaid workers. Hall is the program director for ecological education at the Institute for Applied Ecology. Singer is the project manager for the Idaho and Eastern Oregon Correctional Facilities for the Sagebrush in Prisons Project. Kirk was a participant of the program for about two and a half years when he was incarcerated at the Snake River Correctional Institution in Oregon.

These interviews have been edited and condensed. 

About Sagebrush in Prisons 

Yale Climate Connections: What is the Sagebrush in Prisons Project?

Karen Hall: We work with incarcerated crew members to grow sagebrush. The Bureau of Land Management provides the funding to make this program happen. And so we’re able to work directly with Departments of Corrections, and states and individual prisons to set up all of the things that you need to make the program work. We need hoop houses, we need storage spaces, we need all the things that you might need for a small nursery setup. 

And none of this could happen if it weren’t for the interest of the people in the prisons. The incarcerated crew members put an incredible amount of time into this work, five days a week, typically speaking, and their dedication is evident throughout. And prison officials have to really buy into the program because their roles in this program are integral for our success. Although our staff members are either volunteers or contractors in prisons, we can’t hire staff to go in there five days a week. We don’t have the funds for that. So without a prison official on the ground all the time, the program just really couldn’t work. We can’t do it alone. 

How the program works 

YCC: What’s required of the participants?

Alyson Singer: [Participants] grow these sagebrush seedlings — from sowing the seeds in May to boxing up the seedlings in October — they pretty much run every phase of growth for these seedlings. They’re in charge of fertilizing, watering, thinning, recording for plant height, checking for diseased plants, quarantining plants, and making sure they keep the various seed lots together because sometimes we grow from seeds that are procured in different areas. 

And so once the plants reach their maturity, we put them in bags, put the bags in boxes. And at the end of the season, we arrange with our BLM [Bureau of Land Management] or Idaho [Department of] Fish and Game partners, and they come with big trucks and pick up the boxes and usually refrigerate them until they’re ready to be planted out.

Some of these guys and women work seven days a week watching over the plants, so it’s a lot of responsibility.

Patrick Kirk: My first year, I just went out and helped water and take care of plants. My second year, I was full lead, and I pretty much ran it all, and we fertilized, sowed, harvested, measured the plants all the time. You’re constantly checking them for diseases or whatever because you’re growing them in a controlled environment, so it’s a little bit different than out in the wild. So it was a lot of different [things], just measuring and keeping an eye on what is going on with your plants.

The first year that I ran it, we did 86,000, and then this year that I started, right before I got released, we were doing 69,000. And they’re all in just little eight-inch cones that you grow them in — separate cones, one plant per cone, and then they take them out and plant them in a burned area for reforestation.

Benefits to the people involved 

YCC: What did you like about the program?

Kirk: Well, in prison, you don’t get to make a lot of decisions on your own. It’s pretty much a controlled environment. So in Sagebrush, it gives you a lot more responsibility and self-worth. You have a person that comes out from the Institute of Applied Ecology, which was Alyson Singer for me, and she would come out and check them once a week and kind of give you instructions on what to do, see what’s going on. But you were pretty much in charge all that week, so it gave you a lot of gratification and know you were actually doing something and responsible for something. I really enjoyed that.

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YCC: How did it make you feel to know that you were helping to grow plants that were going to be used to restore sites that had been burned?

Kirk: It’s really good giving back. I logged for a lot of years before I was incarcerated. So it was a good feeling just to be back in the environment and knowing they’re going back out to help habitat and burned areas. People don’t realize that sagebrush is a habitat for rabbits, snakes, even deer. But like, your eagles and all that eat off what sagebrush grows basically, like rabbits, so it affects all sorts of animals throughout the line.

YCC: What did you learn from the program, and do you feel that what you learned will be useful to you in the future?

Kirk: How to make your own decisions. You don’t make a lot of decisions when you’re incarcerated, so how to make your own decisions and learn to overcome problems. There’s a lot of problem-solving on sagebrush, because like I say it’s a native plant, but you’re growing in a controlled environment, so you’re always problem-solving, and that is part of life. Now that I’m out and in the community, you have to problem-solve every day. So I think it really helped in decision-making and looking at things in a different, positive way. 

I think it’s a really good program, and I hope it stays going. I think it would help a lot of people to come back to the community because, like I say, it gives you responsibility and self-worth. It really brings a person’s spirits up. So not only does it help the environment, but it helps the people. 

YCC: How does this program benefit the participants? 

Hall: People have said it’s the first time they’ve had choice since they arrived. We often will give them an opportunity to choose which part of the project they want to work on. If somebody’s really good at watering, we can have that person be the trainer to other people who might want to water. But also it’s a place for them to have sort of peace, to be outside, to connect with nature, and that’s a theme that we hear really often, that it’s super good for them to make a connection outside of the prison, and they really see the benefit in that. 

Singer: They learn new and valuable skills that can be translated into employment upon release. We also provide them information on employment opportunities within horticulture and other related fields upon their release. We give them release packets with information on volunteering in the community with related planting projects and things associated with different nonprofits and Idaho Fish and Game. 

Of course, they learn a little bit about the scientific method and record keeping, data collection, and obviously the leads are supervising a work crew when staff is not there, and they learn about so many topics related to sagebrush steppe. We’ve touched on botany, soil science, wildlife, ecology, ornithology geology, habitat restoration. I’ve started bringing some art into the prisons, the art and science connection, and they love doing art and drawing, and they learn about different plant and animal species in the process. 

YCC: So what does it mean to each of you personally to be involved in this program?

Singer: This is such a special opportunity. The work we’re doing is really positive for the environment, which I’m all for, however, the combination of helping the environment, helping the sage-grouse and all the other species in the sagebrush steppe, and also teaching valuable skills. I feel like I’m truly making a difference for once in my life. It’s a pretty special experience, and the longer I do it, the more I realize what a unique and amazing opportunity it is.

Hall: It’s a real privilege to be able to lead a program like this. People in prisons are people, too, and they connect to nature and want to connect to nature in ways that I have seen many people want to connect to nature. So it’s an awesome opportunity, really, to be involved with a program that, despite the odds and despite the environment, people can still find a meaningful connection with nature inside a prison. That’s such an unusual thing, right, because most of their lives are within concrete walls and with fencing around and barriers to prevent that. And despite all that, they’re still connecting deeply, and that is a real privilege to see and a pleasure to be able to offer to this group of people.

Benefits to the environment

YCC: Do you have an estimate of how many seedlings have been grown through this program and the impacts in terms of ecosystem restoration?

Hall: This year, we’re going to be about right at 3.6 million plants that we’ve grown. These plants are going into areas that have previous wildfire burns, and so they have positively impacted wildfire-affected landscapes across the U.S. West.

YCC: Do you know what the success rate for transplanting the seedlings into the wild is?

Hall: That’s a little bit of a moving target. We are working with BLM [the Bureau of Land Management] to try to shore up our ability to gather statistics on that. I would say that the comments we’ve heard from BLM partners are that our seedling plugs are much better than plugs that they can buy on the open market, which is really not too much of a surprise for us because we know the kind of hours that [Adults in Custody] has put into the program, and that should result, of course, in healthier seedlings, and it in fact does. One of the reasons that BLM has funded this program is because they believe plugs are better than native seed scattering, which also does happen as a means of restoring sagebrush steppe habitat. But they believe plugs are much better, more effective than using direct seed.

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