Sagebrush in Prison Project teaches inmates horticulture and conservation

Climate change, drought, land use and wildfire on the sagebrush-steppe ecosystem of western United States negatively impact the iconic sage-grouse, which has seen its population decline over the decades. Although there are efforts to promote sagebrush habitat restoration projects, finding low-cost sagebrush and bitterbush plants isn’t easy.

Oregon State University Extension Service partnered with Sagebrush Prison Project coordinators to help provide environmental and agricultural experiences to inmates at the minimum security Warner Creek Correctional Facility in Lakeview. The nonprofit Institute for Applied Ecology started the Sagebrush Prison Project to recruit inmates to plant and cultivate sagebrush, which gives them experience with horticulture and conservation and provides plants for habitat restoration for the sage-grouse.

The inmates went through a course taught by Tammy Barnes, Extension animal and rangeland sciences specialist in Lake County and assistant professor of practice in the OSU College of Agricultural Sciences. They then planted and boxed 50,000 plants, which were sent to restoration projects in Oregon, Idaho and Montana. An indirect result of this educational opportunity was that the inmates had the chance to gain hands-on skills that could lead to future careers. They also were introduced to scientific and sustainability principles.

As part of the learning process, the participants were taught nutrient management and soil health by Barnes and received additional education about improving sagebrush quality and persistence. In an example of science in action, a few inmates in the Sagebrush Prison Project measured and recorded plant responses to different fertilizer applications and monitored soil nutrient levels. Barnes also provided technical expertise to Sagebrush Prison Project partners on soil fertility and ran a small observational study with the inmates looking at the possible use of fish manure “tea” as a fertilizer option.

As a result of the collaboration between OSU Extension, the Institute for Applied Ecology and Warner Creek Correctional Facility has spearheaded future agricultural educational efforts such as prison gardens and greenhouses to produce fresh vegetables for the facility and to participate in a research experiment that investigates the use of fish effluent for fertilizer.

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