Post-Fire Restoration, an Inmate Crew, and Success

Magic Wet Spot: Rock Structures installed by the crew retains soil moisture from recent rains.

Magic Wet Spot: Rock Structures installed by the crew retains soil moisture from recent rains.

Post-Fire Habitat Restoration with the Department of Corrections Inmate Crew

By: David Seibert

Early this summer the U.S. Forest Service, Sky Island Alliance (SIA), and Borderlands Restoration (BR) contracted to plan and supervise a 10-man inmate crew’s work to restore a severely burned area in the Chiricahua Mountains. The Horseshoe 2 fire created stand-replacing conditions and stripped areas of vegetation, making the oak woodland vulnerable to erosion and reducing ecological resilience. Violent monsoon rains immediately destabilized the habitat, flushing nutrients, soil, and moisture out of the system and compromising the region’s ability to stabilize, hold moisture, and regenerate.

Enter the inmates of the Forestry Crew at the Douglas Arizona Department of Corrections prison, ready to learn how to build erosion control structures, earn a little money, and get a lot of exercise outside “the yard” of the prison. The inmates are non-violent offenders who have earned the privilege of working in public. They are required to adhere to a strict code of conduct with contractors such as BR, while BR staff were required to receive training in working with inmates in the field. Multiple potential pitfalls, warnings about behavioral issues, and rules of conduct filled the session; but once we entered the field together and pulled in the same direction for habitat health, a unique rapport took shape, along with unanticipated levels of respect and pride in the work at hand.

The first day set the stage and tone. We visited pre-built rock erosion control structures—low, dry-stacked rock filters that slow water and retain sediment and moisture—and talked about how they function in tandem with one another to stitch degraded watersheds back together. We then linked the work to a larger paired-watershed study coordinated by SIA and the U.S. Geological Survey, comparing vegetation response to structures in burned vs. unburned areas. We emphasized the utility of the work and its importance in context, along with three important points that received many nods from the crew—we would consider and treat the guys with respect as employees and allies while in the field; our collective name would be on each structure, and so we required high quality work; and the effort is not busy work, but work with a purpose. “Good!,” said one of the men, and we got to work.

About half-way into the first day of building, one of the team passed me on the way to refilling a water bottle, smiling broadly as he said, “This is cool, man!” I continued to demonstrate techniques, check quality, make corrections, and quiz the men on how and why we were making specific moves with the rock, wood and soil. Nicknames like Grumpy, Foreman John, Jarhead, and Bryan With a Y soon filled the air, along with plenty of competitive joking and critiques among the crew. They began comparing one another’s work and were quick to take credit for any functional structure; but there was more than rockwork and habitat resilience taking shape here. On a tour of one arroyo complex soon after the first rain event, Grumpy suddenly spoke up with surprise in his voice: “At first I was like, What is this?! No way this is going to work! But then when I seen that stuff [moisture and organic material captured behind one of his intact structures], I tell ya I stood a little taller.”

“At first I was like, What is this?! No way this is going to work! But then when I seen that stuff [moisture and organic material captured behind one of his intact structures], I tell ya I stood a little taller.”

Pride had made its way into our work, and so had trust. The men had a good laugh when I finally took them up on their offer to share one of their “state lunches”—usually bread, peanut butter and boloney. At the end of each day they would insist on filling my water jugs with theirs and offer me their food remnants, intrigued that I was camping at the work site and doing what they could to set me up for the night. When I had vehicle trouble they insisted on following me out at the end of the day, and nearly every need and concern among us was accompanied by comments like, “We gotchyou, bro,” “We got your back,” or, “Don’t worry, we got this man.” While they didn’t have a lot of decision-making capacity and were sometimes obviously less than sincere, it was also apparent that they tended to what they could and to what they cared about in ways of their own.

After several weeks of working together, I began to leave the crew for a couple hours at a time in order to set up more work sites. I would review the site plan and remind them of techniques and my expectations, then head off. In the early days I would return to exchange brief updates and carry on. Soon my returns were greeted with strong insistence from the most outspoken of the crew: “Dude, you have got to go see what we built! You gotta check ‘em out!” They laughed, but they wanted to show what they’d done, too. Bryan With a Y regularly insists that his work is so good it will surely make the cover of a hypothetical, future publication to be named Rock Wall Weekly. The men laugh and banter through a “word of the week” game that also raises serious questions about habitat components and how they fit together: tributary, arroyo, confluence, restoration. One man asked if there might be a job for him with BR when he is released in a couple years. A few weeks later he told me he had discussed these hopes with his mother on the phone. “We like people who do good work,” I said simply. “Felony-friendly!” yelled one of the men on hearing this response, inciting raucous laughter that turned into a running joke for weeks.


Success: Rock structures & groups of people functioning together in the watershed.

One day immediately after major rains had ransacked the area, closing campgrounds and ripping roads, the men were anxious to gear up and check out the condition of their work. Shortly after we headed out, a great yell erupted from the burned forest ahead of me: “Woohoooo!! Take that motherfu#%ers!! We built these!!” By the time I arrived the men were grinning and yelling excitedly, with one bent backward at the waist and belly laughing into the air. “There’s two feet of sand under here! You can feel it!,” another said, bouncing up and down on the fresh earth. Deeply incised arroyos that had been flushing moisture and nutrients out of the system were now stable sediment sponges primed to support flora and fauna. The structures had held. Formerly disparate parts had been crafted into functional features of the landscape, and new ephemeral pools had formed in association with them. Thick clouds of butterflies rose among fresh deer tracks in the soft, damp sediment while different, yet inter-related features of the greater system continued to be built and cared for here, and we skipped through our work and laughed like giddy children at what we had built with our hands, together.

David Seibert has practiced ecological restoration for more than 20 years by integrating erosion control, vegetation, fire, and cultural components on public and private land, including sacred site restoration work for the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, and Zuni Tribe. He owns Seibert Ecological Restoration, LLC, and moved to Patagonia in 2012 in order to participate in a restoration economy that addresses the social and ecological challenges of the modern US-Mexico borderlands. He is currently the executive director of Borderlands Restoration, and dreams of becoming editor of “Rock Wall Weekly.”

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