Patrick Kirk delicately pulls a sagebrush plant from its seeding cone.
Wet clumps of dirt fall onto his palms and get stuck beneath his fingernails as the plant emerges. The roots are white and that’s a good sign, Kirk says. It means the plant is healthy.
He spends each morning like this – watering, fertilizing, trimming and checking his sagebrush.
Kirk, 59, is an adult in custody at Snake River Correctional Institution, serving his last of a 15-year sentence.
He is one of three adults in custody involved in the Sagebrush in Prisons Project at the state prison. Kirk is the lead, responsible for overseeing the day-to-day progress, taking initiative on projects and being the point of communication between his two-man team, prison administrators and security, and his mentors.
The program is a partnership between the Institute for Applied Ecology, the Vale District Bureau of Land Management and the prison. Across the West, a similar program operates at 11 prisons. The Snake River program was the pilot program in 2014 and now Kirk and his team grow more plants than any of the other Oregon programs. Between the three of them, they are nursing 80,000 sagebrush plants from the time they are seeds the size of cracked pepper grain to adolescent sagebrush plants, ready to be planted in the Oregon high desert.
“It’s a big job,” said Holly Hovis, who is the Institute for Applied Ecology coordinator at Snake River.
Starting in May, Kirk and his team seed thousands of plants into the black cones where they will grow for the next six months. As the days get warmer and summer approaches little plants peek out of the rich soil.
Each day as the sun heats the two hoop houses, the delicate plants are watering by hand – they can’t handle the pressure of the automatic sprinkler system yet.
In July, the crew is busy trimming and keeping their plants alive. They work in silence, intermingled by conversation while using tweezers and colorful kids scissors to carefully decrease the number of plants in each container until only one remains.
All the while, they keep a close eye on their crop.
Kirk makes his rounds examining each plant, lifting cones out of the tray to feel how heavy they are. He says he can tell if they are hydrated enough just by the weight difference. He shifts the containers away from the edge of the shade cloth if the plant seems too dehydrated and will water them by hand.
“Overwater, you’ve got root rot. Underwater them you’ve got a dead plant.” Kirk said.
Once trimming is finished, fertilizing, watering and observation remain. Kirk and the others spray each plant with their fertilizer mixture before rinsing off the plants, which stand a few inches tall. They also keep data, measuring their heights and testing soil nitrogen levels.
Kirk works with the sagebrush five hours per day, seven days a week.
When his plants finally ship, he will have put about 945 hours into them.
“I’m seeing sagebrush in my sleep,” said Kirk.
Finally, in November Kirk will hand off his sagebrush to an appreciative BLM crew.
For the past two years, when the plants have left the prison, BLM crews have planted them at the site of the Indian Creek Fire which burned almost 50,000 acres outside of Juntura in western Malheur County in 2020. This year’s batch will also be allocated to that site.
Sagebrush is a keystone species to high desert climates like in Malheur County. That means it is essential to the health of the ecosystem.
Hovis said that sagebrush has a taproot that can reach up to 20 feet deep. That allows it to draw water from deep water tables.
“It acts as a hydrologic pump for the rest of the plant community around it,” said Hovis. “In dry years, it (sagebrush) can mean life or death.”
Kristen Munday, Vale BLM emergency stabilization and rehabilitation specialist, said sagebrush also serves as shelter from wind, water, sun and other predators for most species of wildlife in Malheur County. That also makes sagebrush a perfect breeding grounds for animals like the sage grouse, shelter for deer and antelope and a habitat for everything in between.
Sagebrush is vital for a healthy rangeland. After a wildfire, when most elements of the ecosystem are struggling, the presence of sagebrush is important to recovery.
Despite its importance, sagebrush has seen a substantial decline. Hovis said that in the last few years, “we’ve lost 40-60% of sagebrush habitat throughout the West.”
Part of that is due to the increase in fire.
“We are seeing on average, larger average size fires and they are hotter,” said Susan Fritts, assistant field manager of natural resources at the Vale BLM.
Sagebrush does not regrow after fire – its seeds do not survive. Because of that, it takes years to creep back into the ecosystem from the periphery of where wildfires scar the land.
That’s why, with the help of Kirk’s team, sagebrush is reintroduced to the environment by BLM to ensure speed recovery.
Kirk is benefitting from sagebrush too.
In a prison environment that is high stress, sagebrush has been a source of relaxation for Kirk. Each morning Kirk gets to walk through the tall chain linked fence and under the barbed wire to where the hoop houses are – outside of the prison. He finds tranquility with the plants. “Sagebrush is just like that. It’s freedom. You’re not going to get any more freedom in prison than doing that.” Kirk said. “They’re trusting you with that.”
It’s more than that though. For him it’s a steppingstone to moving back into the community.
“It sets you up for the outside – for accountability and responsibility,” Kirk said.
He still has rules to follow, but he is trusted to follow them.
Hovis only visits once a week to provide mentoring on the process, so decisions about the plants are largely Kirk’s responsibility.
“You’re going to have to make decisions in the community,” said Kirk. “If everything’s handed to you and you’re told what to do it’s kind of hard to get out there.”
Kirk will leave prison next July. He doesn’t know if sagebrush will be in his future, but he knows sagebrush needs to have a future.
“There have been so many fires and destruction,” said Kirk. “I don’t think we will ever stop growing sagebrush now.”
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