This Frani Halperin story was shared by the Colorado News Collaborative.
For decades, television and film westerns have depicted cowboys leading cattle through sagebrush country – territory portrayed as inhospitable and dotted with low-growing gray-green shrubs as far as the eye can see. Even today, a drive on a highway in the West makes it seem like it’s endless, monotonous terrain with little value – you know, “flyover country.”
But Gina Clingerman will not tolerate anyone who calls sagebrush habitat wasteland. “It’s a national treasure that people don’t realize is here.” Gina is the Project Manager for the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Abandoned Mining Land Program in Wyoming. I walk with her on a very windy day through the hills of the southern state, about 100 miles north of the Colorado-Wyoming border, where a wildfire burned down over 14,000 acres of land last year. sagebrush steppe. , a landscape that she says is in danger.
Mugwort habitats are “being destroyed bit by bit,” she says. The ecosystem, which is found in 13 states west of the Mississippi, is now fragmented by roads and urbanization and is sliced up by extractive industries like oil, gas, and mining. “Five acres over there… two acres here… It starts to add up over time. “
According to current estimates, nearly half of sagebrush ecosystems, the largest type of interconnected habitat in America, have been lost due to human activities, including devastating fires, which are increasing with droughts and warming temperatures due to them. to climate change. As the native mugwort becomes extinct, invasive species like cheatgrass are only too happy to take hold. Brought in by European settlers in the 1800s, cheatgrass is highly flammable and puts large areas of sagebrush at risk for forest fires, which, when burned, make room for more cheating. It is a vicious circle that is playing out more and more in the West.
Making the Greater Sage-Grouse larger
Gina estimates that the mugwort lost in the fire zone that we pass through near the small town of Hanna was probably 100 to 150 years old. But now, she says, they’re “dead.” Gone forever. ”This is an irreplaceable loss to the American antelope, mule deer, elk and other wildlife that depend on this ecosystem. The“ Sage Sea, ”as it is called, is not only a vital part of the heritage and culture of the West, it is also home to over 350 species of wildlife, some of which do not live anywhere else on Earth, such as the sage grouse, a species key to sagebrush habitat.
The destruction of mugwort habitat is also a loss of an asset in the fight against climate change due to the large amounts of carbon that plants store. Mugwort, which can grow from two to 12 feet tall, has roots that extend nearly 13 feet below the surface. The Resilient and Connected Lands mapping platform developed by The Nature Conservancy shows that 77 percent of Wyoming’s carbon is found in non-forest systems – its rangelands and grasslands – and stores 1.1 billion metric tons. Once a sagebrush ecosystem is devastated, it can take up to a hundred years for it to fully return, along with its carbon sequestration capabilities.
The BLM wants to restore these habitats, in large part due to declining numbers of Greater Sage-Grouse, birds known for their spectacular courtship dances in spring and whose populations have declined by 80% over the past 50 years. The birds hide from predators under the branches of the plant and survive by eating its leaves in winter. Gina says that just spreading seeds on the ground doesn’t really work for establishing plants, although they have tried. And so today, on that fall morning, among blackened groves of dead sagebrush on this charred hill by fire, I see little yellow cages about 12 inches high, inside of which Gina and his colleagues hand-planted seedlings, one by one. Unlike other plants, mugwort can be planted in the fall to take advantage of snowfall for rooting. From seed to stalk, it’s arduous and long, but they got help from a surprising source: inmates in the Wyoming Corrections System.
The Mugwort project in prisons
Levi George is incarcerated at Wyoming Honor Farm, a minimum security prison in Riverton, Wyoming. Every day, starting last April, he and three other inmates made seedling education the focal point of their day. Through a program called the Sagebrush in Prisons Project, they were able to grow mugwort plants from seeds.
“We mixed the dirt and soil and made sure the pH levels are where they need to be. And then, we do the seedlings, then throughout the year, we water them and we fertilize them. Levi explains, adding, “Right now the plants are acclimating to the weather outside, so they’ll be winter-ready when they plant them.” ”
Levi says he never grew a plant from seed and found the experience therapeutic. “It’s nice to see something grow from nothing. He adds that working with plants also offered him a refuge. “In prison, like everywhere, not everyone will get along. So being able to be away from everyone and be with the plants, feed them and watch them grow, for me, that was very calming.
The plants that the inmates grew in six months, which go into the burn area, are now about three inches in height. If they had been grown from seed in nature, it would have taken five years to reach the same height. In addition, seeds scattered on the ground have a survival rate of less than three percent compared to the 40 to 70 percent viability of seedlings. The idea of the prison program is to give the mugwort restoration a boost and give inmates a fresh start.
The Sagebrush in Prisons program was launched by the Institute for Applied Ecology (IAE) in 2014 and is inspired by a program at Evergreen State College in Washington which demonstrated the need for quality programming in prisons . IAE was also aware of the need for native plants to restore land following forest fires. So they discussed with their BLM partners to find a way to bring the two concepts together, and the Sagebrush in Prisons project was born.
Stacy Moore, an environmental educator at the Institute, which deals with habitat restoration, research and environmental education, explains that the first prison they worked with was the Snake River Correctional Facility. in Ontario, Oregon. At first, prison officials were skeptical of devoting resources to growing a plant that most saw as “a weed that grows everywhere,” but its value to inmates soon became evident. . Staff told Stacy that not only were they convinced with the idea, but they also wanted to double production next year. “So that’s what we did, and the following year we went from one prison to five prisons. Then other prisons saw the benefits and raised their hands to get involved as well. The association now works with 11 prisons in Wyoming, Oregon, Idaho, Nevada and California.
Save natural habitats, save human lives
Stacy will be the first to say that if the only goal was to grow mugwort, the association could do it on its own. But the ability to benefit adults in custody far outweighed the constraints that working with prison populations presented, such as background checks, unplanned blockages and, most recently, restrictions related to COVID-19. “These inmates are going to be out in the community soon, they’re going to be your neighbors, they’re going to be the ones you stand in line at the grocery store. So we want to give them as many skills as possible before they are released.
The Institute brings in experts to each prison to teach inmates – and staff who also seem eager to learn – a range of topics related to mugwort ecosystems. At the end of the season, each participant receives a certificate that lists the skills they have acquired. Stacy says they believe the program enriches the lives of inmates – giving them education, horticultural skills, and helping them engage in prosocial behaviors.
The program is so popular with inmates that there are currently not enough places for anyone wishing to enroll. Perhaps this is because of the calming effect provided by the presence of mugwort. Stacy learns from prison officers that the program has helped reduce violence in the institutions after inmates worked with the factories. The inmates tell him they like the smell of mugwort (Artemisia tridentata) – which is not the same as culinary sage (Salvia officinalis) used in cooking. Some inmates say that feeding the seedlings lowered their blood pressure.
But the benefit can go beyond reducing tensions in a unit. Officers report that the program has helped inmates out of the chasm. One example is an Idaho inmate who was so depressed he didn’t want to come out. But after getting involved in the program, it not only boosted his morale, but he also became the core member of the team. Prison staff said the program “pulled him out of his shell and saved his life.”
The experience convinced Levi, who is due for release within days from Wyoming Honor Farm, to apply to work for the BLM. “I plan to continue working with them after I get released here and try to help other people who have been in my situation when they come out of it to have a starting point, as it is sometimes difficult for criminals to find a job.”
Studies show that programs like these reduce recidivism because inmates reenter society with tangible skills and feel valued. They also express how important it is to feel that they are giving back to the community. “It’s just knowing that you had a part of something that you bring to life that will hopefully support other life forms.” Levi said, trying to put into words what the program meant to him. “It’s a big problem.”
This is also a big problem for the newly planted mugwort. They will thrive with the help of the inmates, who nurtured the seedlings and, in the process, grew.
Frani Halperin is executive producer at H2O Radio.