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Regrowing The West: Inmates Employ New Strategy To Revitalize Sagebrush

Cooper McKim
Michael Catt (left) and Christopher Eagle Road (right) tend to their sagebrush seedlings.

Driving down a long-rural road in central Wyoming, Gina Clingerman pulls up to the gate of a minimum-security prison called the Honor Farm. A security guard gives the truck a once-over.
"Tobacco, lighters, everything like that stays inside the vehicle. You don't have any guns, knives, bazookas, anything like that?" the guard asks.

Once inside, the prison opens up like a college campus with green grass, picturesque trees and colonial-looking buildings. There's no barbed wire in site. This is usually the last place inmates go before release so there is some trust built in. Inmates walk the grounds all wearing the same get-up: jeans and a collared shirt-either red or orange.

Credit Cooper McKim
Not far from the Honor Farm, Gina passes sagebrush, or what she sometimes called Wyoming's Redwood. She says sagebrush passed on the road could be as old as 50 years.

"It kind of almost feels like a retreat in a way... if you didn't know this was a minimum security facility," Clingerman said, an archaeologist with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

She's here to check on a program she helped implement here: the Sagebrush in Prisons Project. Inmates here are growing sagebrush in a greenhouse that will then be planted to reclaim abandoned mine land in the state.

This project is done in seven other states, and Wyoming is the latest. The goal is to improve how the prickly, green bush grows on disturbed lands. In 2017, the project, begun by the Institute of Applied Ecology, coordinated with Western states to grow over 390,000 sagebrush and other sage steppe plants in the region. It's well-known that the sagebrush landscape has been fragmented by wildfires and development, but another part was surprising. It's not easy to grow back.

"On average, a sagebrush will have thousands of seeds and only 5 percent of those seeds, when dropped to the ground, will grow," Clingerman said.

Scattering seeds is what Wyoming has done unsuccessfully for a long time in reclamation. Don Newton also helped implement the project in Wyoming through Wyoming's Department of Environmental Quality.

"We have a long history of decades, the abandoned mainland program does, of trying to get sagebrush to grow. But in most places, it's really pretty difficult to get it established," Newton said.

Clingerman explained sagebrush are critical to hundreds of species by providing nutrients, shade, and habitat.

"It's a keystone species in this whole vast ecosystem that, without it, everything else suffers," she said.

Several years ago, Wyoming's BLM along with the DEQ, Department of Corrections, and the Institute of Applied Ecology looked at a different way to grow sagebrush, a way that improves the success rate of growth from 5 percent to 90.

At the Honor Farm, the sun beams down on inmates all tending to the day's jobs. A saw is roaring as it cuts through concrete next to the medical building. Other inmates chat while planting flowers along the road. Then, there's the greenhouse. Three inmates come out and introduce what they're working on. Behind them are three long rows of sagebrush seedlings. Some are taller than others. Chris Eagle Road speaks first.

"Now, we're at the point where we're trimming. We water 'em twice a day. But where we're at now is getting them down to where there's just one healthy one in there," he said.

Credit Cooper McKim
Michael Catt (left), Christopher Eagle Road (middle), and Drew Moore (right) stand at the back of their greenhouse.

The three guys -Eagle Road, Drew Moore, and Michael Catt -applied to be a part of this program earlier this year. After an interview process, they started in June, beginning to help employ this new strategy. Instead of scattering seeds, they're helping grow the sagebrush to a tougher seedling that will have a far better chance of surviving the Wild West.

Drew Moore said the sagebrush has already made a lot of progress since they began.

"We were worried to begin with that it wasn't gonna grow nothing and I was like 'Oh, man'. But now you come and see it every day and it's like, yeah, it's really nice to see 'em growing good."

Eagle Road said they feel pride in watching them grow, and Michael Catt agreed, saying, "There's a sense of maternal pride, I guess, watching these grow. We're very protective of our plants."

He even plays guitar to them.

The inmates aren't just growing the plants, but studying and learning about the value of sagebrush West-wide. Eagle Road said it's been impactful to learn about the issue.

"I didn't realize how much, especially in this state, that's it's been affected and how much habitat that it has sustained. So, you know, how much has been destroyed here just from, you know, I've worked in the oil field industry. So just that industry alone is, you know, decimated it."

To Drew Moore, it's great to be able to work with the plants and also personally it's been satisfying just to be in a greenhouse with these guys.

"We're at lows in our life. And now that we all work together and we're giving back, we come in here and talk about things like jobs that we have in mind. We talked about our feelings... and the camaraderie with just us three is growing," he said.

They talk about the possibility of a job in the reclamation of old energy sites or wildfire-ravaged land. Catt said he'll put it on his resume and imagines his upcoming parole board hearing.

"Hey, we know we were doing something with our day, we were really being productive. And we were giving back to our community even," he said.

And when they do leave, they'll have left something behind in the wide-open West.

"I know when I leave here, I've I'm going back to Montana. So I don't I've left my my footprint here. I've done my part," Catt said.

Credit Cooper McKim
A full view of the greenhouse where sagebrush is growing.

In November, the three guys expect to leave the confines of the Honor Farm and actually plant these seedlings at an several abandoned uranium mine sites in central Wyoming.

Cindy Ferguson, executive assistant at the Honor Farm, listens in on the whole conversation.

"The changes I've seen in these men- it puts me in tears. I mean, it's phenomenal," she said.

Ferguson has been at Honor Farm for about 15 years and watched how helpful programs like this can be. She said it can help prepare inmates for the real-world.

"I think the ultimate goal is still the same. And it's to prepare you and to help you get back into being a viable contribution to society. They might be your neighbor one day, right? So, how do you want to treat them?"

The program at the Honor Farm isn't even done with its first year. But the hope is that it will help sagebrush help reverse habitat fragmentation and stabilize reliant species like sage grouse. All while giving a unique opportunity at the human-level, too.

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Cooper McKim, at cmckim5@uwyo.edu.

Before Wyoming, Cooper McKim has reported for NPR stations in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and South Carolina. He's reported breaking news segments and features for several national NPR news programs. Cooper is the host of the limited podcast series Carbon Valley. Cooper studied Environmental Policy and Music. He's an avid jazz piano player, backpacker, and podcast listener.

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