On a hill overlooking rows of grain waiting to be harvested in rural Pennsylvania, 16 inmates from Huntingdon State Correctional Institution showed several visiting government officials how to plant trees.

As a drizzling rain gained strength, small groups fanned out along a small stream that feeds the Juniata River, to plant 400 trees and shrubs in several long rows. The work lent itself to getting wet and muddy, but also provided ample time for conversations to take root before everyone sheltered under tents for a small graduation ceremony.

The inmates represent the first graduates of a 14-week riparian forest buffer vocational training led by staff from the correctional institution, the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay and the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR). The goal of the program, according to the Alliance’s forest program manager, Ryan Davis, is to increase the size and strength of the workforce that is needed to maintain forest buffers. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, within the next five years, the tree industry will need 30,000 new employees.

A woman and man stand facing each other, handling a tree planted in between them.

Pennsylvania DCNR secretary Cindy Dunn talks with a forest buffer vocational trainee while planting trees together before the program's graduation ceremony in Huntingdon County. (Photo by Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program)

The work is labor-intensive, but Davis said the men were hungry to learn how the natural world works and have been driven to develop new technical skills.

“In my entire career, I've never educated a group that was so far outside of the choir that we typically preach to,” Davis said. “And they have quite possibly turned out to be the best audience I've ever had.”

Planting trees is one of the most effective ways to combat water pollution, and as governments have set environmental goals, the demand for workers to fill green jobs like forest buffer maintenance has increased. In 2014, the Chesapeake Bay Program committed to restoring buffers until 70% of the watershed’s riparian areas are forested. Pennsylvania, for example, is working to add 86,500 acres of forest buffers along its rivers and streams by 2025 in order to improve the health of local waterways and the Chesapeake Bay.

“We’re trying to figure out where are the gaps for meeting our conservation goals that would be suitable for folks who don’t really have much background, to give them the background so that they can join the fight and make a living,” Davis said.

Research has shown that helping inmates find employment after incarceration reduces the chance they’ll end up back in prison, and ultimately reduces the costs of incarceration.

The forest buffer training is part of what the Pennsylvania agencies and the Alliance are calling the Corrections Conservation Collaborative, which helps reduce recidivism by offering green career training at state correctional institutions for inmates nearing release. The program has already offered an arborist short course and will soon offer horticulture training and address urban stormwater issues.

Davis said that Tina Hicks-Kern, corrections employment and vocational coordinator at Huntingdon, was instrumental in starting the project and making sure it was successful. She chose the 20 trainees and attended every training session herself.

Taught by Davis as well as instructors Shea Zwerver and Teddi Stark from DCNR, the inmates first learned about water quality and how pollution reaches the Chesapeake Bay. They looked at the same stream and compared stretches flowing through forest and farm fields. They flipped over rocks in the water to look at the macroinvertebrates whose aquatic habitat depends on trees.

And they learned the basics about buffers. When trees grow along streams, they provide a buffer between the water and any nearby farm fields or urban development, with their roots filtering excess nutrient pollution that would otherwise travel downstream. Trees also shade the water and stabilize eroding stream banks, restoring the effect of a healthy forest.

“Then we got into the nitty gritty of how to plant, how to design a buffer, and then focused a lot on how to maintain them,” Davis said.

Buffer maintenance is critical work, as young trees can be easy prey for voles and deer and can be smothered by invasive plants if not cared for properly before they mature.

Before calling each graduate’s name, the instructors recalled moments from the weekly training—who always showed up smiling, who was always looking for the next task to complete, who had the largest appetite for the edible fruits of certain native trees.

Several individuals admitted to being shy speakers, but all took at least a few words to offer gratitude in return. One described growing up in Philadelphia and having no idea what a riparian buffer was before the training. Another considered himself something of an outdoorsman before the training, but said he knows so much more now and will spread his awareness to the rest of his family.

Another described time he has missed spending with his young daughter and how he plans to teach her everything he’s learned.

Davis said he hopes some of the graduates will become the “stellar buffer maintenance professionals that we need” and that empowerment is also a big part of the story.

“They are empowered to help make the world a better place, to contribute substantially in the fight for a livable planet,” Davis said. “I don’t think there's anything more noble.”



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