For many people looking out over the Nevada landscape means a treeless arid view dotted with sagebrush and not much else. But for those who live here and spend time out in the American Outback the land teems with life and drama.
Part of the process this landscape goes through is destruction and regeneration. Wildfire sweeps across the land, destroying everything in its path. After the fires, a few tiny seeds take hold in the soil and grow into mature plants. Animals and birds return to live among the renewed landscape and the process begins again.
But Mother Nature can’t do it all on her own so the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) funds a program to rehabilitate areas devastated by wildfires or other environmental disturbances. One such program is the Sagebrush in Prisons Project. The project is an environmental partnership between the Institute for Applied Ecology, Department of Corrections, and the Bureau of Land Management and is part of the Sustainability in Prisons Project.
Project Coordinator Shannon Swim says the purpose of the program is to help restore wildlife habitat especially for the sage grouse while also engaging state prison systems. Swim says the program not only grows desperately needed plant material but also teaches inmates a bit of ecology a long the way. “We go into these institutions and we teach the inmates how to grow the sagebrush which includes how to sow, how to care for it, and then we also have this whole educational aspect where we teach them not just how to grow but why we are growing.”
Swim says most people look out across the Nevada countryside and think there is an abundance of sagebrush. “The reality is that it is declining rapidly and so we teach [the inmates] why we're growing it all.”
The Sagebrush Prison Project is a nationwide program operating in nine prison institutions. Inmates who are interested are all volunteers. Swim coordinates the project for four of the nine prisons. She visits each of the prisons once a week during the year. She coordinates the project in three Nevada correctional facilities and one federal prison in California.
The program begins in February or March when Swim gets the sagebrush seeds from the BLM. Swim said the seeds are designated for certain areas and is genetically appropriate for that area. Once the seeds have been received planting and maintenance can begin. “The inmates mix the soil all together,” Swim said. “They fill the containers with soil, then they put the seed on there. They water it and then they start calculating percent germination so we can get an idea of how much more seed we need if we're going to have enough.”
The inmates care for the plants until the BLM is ready to pick them up in the fall, usually in late October or early November. Swim says she and the inmates box up the seedlings for the BLM to pick up and take to planting sites. The typical types of sagebrush grown for Nevada include Wyoming and Mountain Big sagebrush.
Swim says that inmates will grow about 370,000 plants, with the hope of delivering 310,000 plants just in Nevada. Many of these plants are heading to rehabilitate the Martin Fire area.
Once a month during the grow season, Swim invites guest lecturers to speak to the inmates. She says talks have included soil, invasive species, fire ecology, and other conservation issues, adding that many inmates never knew how important sagebrush is to the ecosystem.
Swim says over 350 species of animals, birds and lizards depend on sagebrush. Some of these species are sagebrush obligates which means that without access to the bush these species die. Sagebrush obligate species include the greater sage grouse, the pygmy rabbit and the black-tailed jack rabbit.
The program started as a pilot program in Oregon in 2014 and by 2016 Northern Nevada had its own program at three prisons: Lovelock Correctional Center, Northern Nevada Correctional Center and the Warm Springs Correctional Center. The program has delivered over 400,000 sagebrush seedlings in Nevada and it planted its one-millionth sagebrush seedling in Idaho in 2018.