Inmates Help Plant Trees for Common Gardens

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Cottonwoods ready for planting. Photo: Karla Kennedy.

What began in 1982 as a 200-tree common garden project for Northern Arizona University (NAU) Regents’ Professor Tom Whitham in the early stages of his career, 30 years later has grown into more than 40,000 trees in gardens in Arizona, Utah, California, and Alberta, Canada. Each time the Cottonwood Ecology Group plants a new common garden, it is expanding the opportunity to learn about the genes that shape not only the tree itself, but also the community that lives in and on the tree and the ecosystem services that tree offers. But who puts these trees into the ground?

An exciting partnership

Thanks to a jointly funded project by the National Science Foundation, the Bureau of Reclamation, and Arizona Game and Fish to advance science and restoration, an exciting partnership was formed between NAU and the Arizona State Forestry Division to help plant the trees for the common gardens in Arizona.

There are 11wildland firefighting crews in Arizona staffed by male and female inmates and supervised by a Forestry Division crew boss. These crews have helped plant trees in common gardens in Arizona.  Crew members are low-risk prisoners who are certified the same way as any other wildland firefighter. This includes skills from knot tying and radio use to extinguishing different types of fires and chainsaw use and maintenance.

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A planted cottonwood seedling. Photo: Faith Walker.

Inmate crews have helped to plant five common gardens containing about 10,000 trees and shrubs, and they assisted on a massive data collection effort that involved taking eight data points on almost 3,000 trees.  

Often, their work requires them to cut down live trees; the Cottonwood Ecology Group hires them to plant trees—an opportunity they say they appreciate. The planting crew arrives early in the morning to avoid the punishing Arizona heat. They are given an introduction to the science behind the planting design, and together they and scientists from the Cottonwood Ecology Group finalize the details of how to plant the trees in the most efficient way.

Trees planted in record time

What happens next is often astounding: Trees get planted in record time.  For example, in 2012, 23 men from the Winslow Correctional Facility helped 15 people from NAU and Arizona Game and Fish plant 4,000 trees in about five hours. This has created an exciting opportunity for the inmates, who typically deal with fire-damaged lands, to rehabilitate degraded habitat. It has also given the inmates a chance to chat with members of the Cottonwood Ecology Group about scientific research and the opportunities found in a university setting.

According to Whitham, working with the inmate crews has become an important resource to help establish the research sites. So far, inmate crews have helped to plant five common gardens containing about 10,000 trees and shrubs, and they assisted on a massive data collection effort that involved taking eight data points on almost 3,000 trees.  The trees benefit from this fast and efficient planting.  Survival is often greater than 80 percent.  Some of the older gardens are now gallery forests. The trees are about 60 feet tall and support a rich community of microbes, insects, birds and mammals.  Everybody wins from this collaboration, and the inmates have played a major role in making it happen.

 --Karla Kennedy