Washington prisoners plant seeds for conservation

OLYMPIA — When the Nature Conservancy and The Evergreen State College needed a lot of labor for not a lot of money in order to help preserve a pristine piece of wetland, they ended up turning to Stafford Creek Prison, of all places.

It was quite a meeting, said Nalini Nadkarni, a professor at Evergreen.

“One of the things I see as a stereotype is that prisons are black holes for people, money, resources and effort,” Nadkarni said. Of course, as a scientist, she was used to being pegged with a stereotype herself, as the fuzzy-headed Ivory Tower academic pursuing arcane knowledge of little practical value.

Nadkarni’s pilot project has inmates cultivating endangered prairie grasses and so far, it’s been a success.

In a large greenhouse behind the prison’s campus, offenders plant individual seeds of showy fleabane in hundreds of yellow plastic tubes. Other species of grasses are already starting to grow in starter containers in the back of the greenhouse. Near where the prisoners work, a glassed-in beehive thrums with activity.

Volunteers collected the seeds by hand out in the field. Now, inmates are dusting them over lightly with soil.

“They’re so small,” inmate Toby Erhart said of the seeds, which he’s trying to put five to 10 of in each tube. Although the work is “tedious, at best,” he added that it’s a privilege to be outdoors.

Edward Turner, an inmate who says he was an organic farmer from Eastern Washington, said he was “from the old school hippies! In the days before it was popular.”

It was nothing new to Turner to plant seeds that would restore soils, but it was clear that it was a task he particularly enjoyed.

“This is real good for me,” Turner said. “We’re helping in some small way to make the planet a better place. It’s good to bring nature back.”

Once the grasses have sprouted and grown, they’ll be taken to Fort Lewis, where they’ll be planted in meadows that are used as artillery ranges.

“Artillery fields are the most pristine areas because nothing goes there,” said Rod Gilbert, a biologist at Fort Lewis with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. The only creatures that dare to enter are birds, insects and small animals such as frogs and Mazama pocket gophers, he said.

Once the grass patches are established, they can be used for seed collection, so another round of propagation can begin.

Although it is hard to think of grasses as endangered species, it’s a fact, Gilbert said.

“Native Americans used to burn off the meadows with fire once a year,” he said. That both helped the grasses propagate and repressed tree seedlings. But the practice stopped when settlers came to the Oregon Territory and took the land as their own, causing forest to encroach on the grasslands, he said.

This will be the first large-scale restoration project launched from a prison on the West Coast, Gilbert said.

“We’re totally psyched about it,” he added.

This is not the first partnership between the Corrections Department and the Nature Conservancy. Cedar Creek Corrections Center ran a program breeding endangered frogs. One of the offenders who worked on the project became part of the scientific team that published articles in scientific journals about their discoveries, Nadkarni said.

It’s exciting to see the critical thinking and observational skills of scientists develop in inmates, she added.

“For scientists like me, I think it’s important to talk to people beyond academia,” Nadkarni said. “We need to transmit our way of understanding the world.”

The project, which is funded by federal dollars, just couldn’t have been feasible outside of the prison, said Jeff Muse, Evergreen’s sustainable prisons project manager. It takes too much labor, which is extremely expensive on the outside. Offenders make about 45 cents an hour.

More than their wages, the prisoners not only learn the skills of cultivating plants, they learn they can use that skill outside of landscaping and gardening, Muse said.

“It’s green-collar education,” he said.

But Muse, like Nadkarni, sees the program in a much broader light. Making an institution compensate in some way for its use of environmental resources makes a much larger impact than just hoping everyone tries to cut down on creating trash and buys fluorescent lights. He likened institutions such as hospitals, prisons and schools to cargo ships, which don’t turn on a dime, but do gather steam as they head in a new direction.

Julie Vanneste, the Department of Correction’s sustainability coordinator, said Washington is a model state when it comes to sustainability, and Stafford Creek is its model prison for sustainability.

Muse pointed out that sustainability is often cast as a concern of yuppies. He shares Nadkarni’s misson to spread the scientific word to everyone. Global climate change and the rapid loss of species to overdevelopment will ultimately affect everyone, he said. As a scientist, however, he said he realizes the programs may sound great, but he’s hoping to back them up with studies to find out how effective they are.

“None of this will matter unless we figure out how it works or why it works,” Muse said.

Stafford Creek’s sustainability programs don’t start and end with field grasses. The prison composts its food waste and grows its own fruits and vegetables. It has a comprehensive recycling program. And it repurposes old bikes to give to charity.

Reusing and fixing old things isn’t just a skill for the prison, it’s a skill that can start a business. Muse brought Eli Reich, a former Seattle bike messenger who founded Alchemy Goods when he started selling bags made out of old inner tubes, to talk to the inmates about his business. Muse said offenders could do the same once they got out of prison.

“We want them to take what is useless and make it useful,” Muse said.

The same could be said, to a degree, about the inmates. Dan Pacholke, former Stafford Creek superintendent and current facilities administrator for Western Washington, said 97 percent of the state’s 16,000 offenders are headed for release someday, and they need to come out better than they went in. And doing science, which gets inmates to use critical thinking skills and creates a sense of social engagement, is one way to do that.

“I’d like to see science projects in every prison in the state,” Pacholke said.

Information from: The Daily World, www.thedailyworld.com

Talk to us

> Give us your news tips.

> Send us a letter to the editor.

> More Herald contact information.

More in Local News

Kim Skarda points at her home on a map on Thursday, June 20, 2024 in Concrete, Washington. A community called Sauk River Estates has a very steep slope above it. There is a DNR-approved timber sale that boarders the estate properties, yet they were not consulted about the sale before approval. The community has already appealed the sale and has hired their own geologist to conduct a slope stability report at the site. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
Beneath steep slope, Concrete neighbors fear landslides from logging above

Nielsen Brothers plans to cut 54 acres of timber directly behind the community of 83 homes. Locals said they were never consulted.

Law enforcement respond to a person hit by a train near the Port of Everett Mount Baker Terminal on Thursday, June 27, 2024 in Mukilteo, Washington. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
2 killed in waterfront train crashes were near Mukilteo ‘quiet zone’

In June, two people were hit by trains on separate days near Mukilteo Boulevard. “These situations are incredibly tragic,” Everett’s mayor said.

Rob Plotnikoff takes a measurement as a part of the county's State of Our Waters survey at Tambark Creek in Bothell, Washington on Monday, July 1, 2024. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
Snohomish County stream team bushwhacks a path to healthier waterways

This summer, the crew of three will survey 40 sites for the State of Our Waters program. It’s science in locals’ backyards.

Logo for news use featuring the municipality of Mountlake Terrace in Snohomish County, Washington. 220118
4th suspect arrested after Mountlake Terrace home robbery

Police arrested Taievion Rogers, 19, on Tuesday. Prosecutors charged his three alleged accomplices in April.

A 10 acre parcel off of Highway 99, between 240th and 242nd Street Southwest that the city of Edmonds is currently in the process of acquiring on Monday, July 10, 2023 in Edmonds, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Edmonds ditches $37M Landmark public park project off Highway 99

The previous mayor envisioned parks and more in south Edmonds, in a historically neglected area. The new administration is battling budget woes.

Edmonds school official sworn in as Mount Vernon supe

Victor Vergara took his oath of office last week. He was assistant superintendent of equity and student success in Edmonds.

A photo of "Tazz," an Argentine white Tegu still missing near Granite Falls. (Provided photo)
Tazz the missing tegu reunited with owner in Granite Falls

The 4-foot lizard went missing Friday evening. Searchers located him in a barn, 1 mile away from his home.

A closing sign hangs above the entrance of the Big Lots at Evergreen and Madison on Monday, July 22, 2024, in Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Big Lots announces it will shutter Everett and Lynnwood stores

The Marysville store will remain open for now. The retailer reported declining sales in the first quarter of the year.

President Joe Biden speaks at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, in Greensboro, N.C., on April 14, 2022. Biden plans to nominate Michael Barr  to be the Federal Reserve's vice chairman of supervision. The selection of Barr comes after Biden's first choice for the Fed post, Sarah Bloom Raskin, withdrew her nomination a month ago (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Washington Democrats voice support for Biden’s decision to drop out of presidential race

Some quickly endorsed Vice President Kamala Harris to replace him on the ballot.

Teenager in stable condition after Everett drive-by shooting Saturday

Major Crime Unit detectives were looking for two suspects believed to have shot the teenager in the 600 block of 124th Street SW.

Miners Complex tops 500 acres in Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

Nine lightning-caused fires force trail closures and warnings 21 miles east of Darrington. No homes are threatened.

FILE — President Joe Biden arrives for a Medal of Honor ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington, July 3, 2024. Biden abandoned his campaign for a second term under intense pressure from fellow Democrats on Sunday, July 21, upending the race for the White House in a dramatic last-minute bid to find a new candidate who can stop former President Donald Trump from returning to the White House. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)
Biden drops out of race, endorses vice president Kamala Harris

The president announced the decision on social media Sunday.

Support local journalism

If you value local news, make a gift now to support the trusted journalism you get in The Daily Herald. Donations processed in this system are not tax deductible.