Trying to Find a Balance: The Emergent Vegetated Mats (EVM) Project

Text by Amanda Mintz and Danyl Herringshaw. Photos by Amanda Mintz unless otherwise noted.

The goal of an aquaponics system is to mimic nature by recycling nutrients from animal waste into plant tissue through microbial decomposition. The needs of fish, plants, and microbes must be balanced to keep the system functioning properly. The technicians at Stafford Creek Corrections Center are tasked with being sensitive to the needs of the system and work hard to maintain the balance among these symbiotic organisms. The technicians learn about plant and microbial ecology, water quality, and fish biology while also learning how to troubleshoot plumbing, heating systems, and pumps. When the system is working as it should, the technicians may be left with little maintenance to do. But when something goes wrong, such as a spike in ammonia or a failed pump, it is their job to figure out how to find the problem and fix it.

Click to learn more about how SPP is partnering with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the Center for Natural Lands Management, and the Department of Defense to restore Oregon spotted frog habitat in Washington State.

Danyl Herringshaw (left) and Joseph Oddo, current EVM technicians, are learning to maintain a system that often behaves in unexpected ways. This photo was taken just prior to loading mats for delivery…

This spring Danyl Herringshaw, an EVM technician since January, reflected on his experiences in the aquaponics facility:

“I think the most important thing I’ve learned since working at the EVM greenhouse at SCCC is the value of a mistake. The EVM greenhouse is a very delicate and fickle system. A small adjustment to the water flow can affect the entire system’s timing, for example. There have been countless examples of how I’ve learned and grown in my knowledge of this system from mine and others’ mistakes.

“This also puts into perspective how delicate a natural system is. Minor adjustments and maintenance seem to make this job slow, even boring sometimes. However, if an adjustment is too large or too small or a certain piece is overlooked during maintenance, it can have large ramifications. These adjustments and maintenance seem to happen effortlessly in nature.

“This is why natural habitats and ecosystems ought to be preserved when considering urban development. These systems are in place to keep us, and the wildlife that reside there, safe.”

In the EVM, we are doing our part to enhance natural ecosystems by growing native wetland plants in support of wetland habitat restoration for the threatened Oregon spotted frog. The plants are sown in soil and installed in mats once their roots and shoots are large enough. Then they continue growing in the mats until they achieve at least 50% cover. Mr. Herringshaw and Joseph Oddo, who has been working on the EVM project since March, have done an exceptional job sowing, tracking growth, and maintaining the health of the plants. We delivered another set of mats to Joint Base Lewis McChord in June.

…and this photo was taken after loading the mats! Each mat can weigh up to 100 pounds, even after they are allowed to drain and dry out for 24 hours.

 

Mr. Herringshaw and Mr. Oddo roll up the mats before loading them onto the truck. In the field, they will be rolled out and secured in place; the plants perk right back up.

 

This mat can’t wait for contact with soil! Imagine reed canarygrass trying to grow through these lush roots.

The EVM project is a learning laboratory for technicians and staff alike. Amanda Mintz, EVM Coordinator and Master of Environmental Studies graduate student at Evergreen, has been researching the effects of adding compost tea to the aquaponics water on plant nutrient content . Theoretically, the microbial community in the compost tea—a brew made by soaking bags of compost in aerated water—aids in plant nutrient uptake in several ways, such as helping decompose organic matter in the water, or stimulating plant hormones that promote growth and increase nutrient uptake. Mr. Herringshaw and former technician Matthew Fuller collected plant tissue samples for Amanda to take back to Evergreen’s laboratories for analysis, tracked plant growth and health data, and ensured that system parameters remained constant during the experiment.

Former EVM technicians Brian Bedilion and Matt Fuller calculate percent cover using the point method. Photo by Jim Snider, DOC

Stay tuned for the results of Amanda’s project!

Beekeeping at Clallam Bay

Text and photos by Bethany Shepler, SPP Green Track Coordinator

Students observe a frame from the hive Mark brought in. This frame has wax on it and some cells were full of pollen.

Beekeeping has been growing in popularity throughout prisons in Washington State, with 12 facilities now housing hives! Clallam Bay Corrections Center (CBCC) is among them; the prison has 3 healthy hives tended by inmate and staff apprentice beekeepers certified by WA State Beekeepers Association. CBCC is located in Clallam Bay on the Olympic Peninsula adjacent to the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Beekeeping instructor Mark Urnes shows students a bottom board from the hive he brought in as a demonstration tool.

The liaison holds a drawing of bee drone biology made by incarcerated students.

Earlier in the spring, CBCC hosted a day-long intensive seminar for a new group of incarcerated beekeepers. Beekeeping instructor Mark Urnes, the education lead for the North Olympic Peninsula Beekeepers’ Association, led the seminar and fielded many questions from the inmate beekeepers.They covered topics such as bee biology, pathogens, and colony collapse disorder. Students came prepared, so that they could get as much out of the intensive as possible; all had read scientific articles, bee journals, and reviewed their class notes from WA State Beekeepers Association apprenticeship curriculum. They brought with them drawings of bee biology and model hives that aided Mark’s descriptions and demonstrations.

The CBCC officer who sponsors the beekeeping program told me many stories about how beekeeping has had positive impacts on the lives of inmates and staff. The staff sponsor was proud to share that inmates who go through the program have a lasting positive effects from it. I was so happy to hear that the program is being so well received and having such a positive effect on the lives of those involved in it.

More images from the intensive follow.

Another sketch by incarcerated students shows a cross section of a hive showing the different stages of bee larvae within the hive cells.

This frame shows wax that is fresher, towards the side of the frame, compared to older wax in the middle of the frame.

Students listen as Mark answers questions.

Students had constructed a model hive out of paper (seen on the table) and Mark used it to aid the part of his presentation about the different parts of a hive and the purpose they serve.

Mark holds a picture of queen next to some worker bees. Here he was talking about the importance of queen health to the hive as a whole.

Mark listens as a student asks a question.

Keep up the good work, CBCC!

 

McNeil Island’s Newest Residents

Text and photos by Bethany Shepler, Green Track Program Coordinator

After four years of organizing, planning, and building a team, honeybees have arrived at McNeil Island.
This spring marks a special occasion for Washington State beekeeping and beekeepers: we have installed honeybees on McNeil Island! McNeil Island offers wonderful beekeeping prospects because the island is pesticide-free—a rare resource in the region. Pesticides can interfere with bees’ senses, or even be toxic, so having access to a place that is free of pesticides is an exciting opportunity for beekeepers.

A bit of background on McNeil Island

McNeil Island housed a federal penitentiary from 1875 to 1981, when WA Department of Corrections (WA Corrections) took over the facility. In 2011, WA Corrections closed down the prison on McNeil Island, but they continue to be stewards of this epic landscape—Correctional Industry (CI) staff oversee stewardship operations. McNeil Island now houses a Department of Social and Human Services (DSHS) special commitment facility, and the old prison is used by the military, National Guard, WA Corrections, and others for training purposes. (If you want to know more about the island and its history, here’s the link to the Wikipedia page.)

On our trip around the island we would see signs like this one.

We visited the island a week before the bees were dropped off to take a tour and complete preparations. It’s not very big, but it’s a beautiful island nestled in the Puget Sound and mostly covered in vegetation. Sprinkled around the island are boarded-up houses where prison staff lived when the facility was in operation, and there’s even an old school house for their families. Even though we haven’t seen them yet, there are a few bears that live on the island, too!

The expert beekeeping team—we’re so lucky to be working with them! From left to right: Dixon Fellows, Gail Booth, Laurie Pyne, Maren Anderson, and Andy Matelich.

Honeybee Home

The bee hives are in a small structure in the center of this photo; it’s a perfect location, surrounded by an orchard and shielded from the elements by an old bus stop.

The bee installation crew made some final preparations just before the bees moved to their new home.

Collaboration is Key

This project could not have been possible without the collaboration of many different partners including SPP Co-Director Steve Sinclair, staff and administration from Cedar Creek Corrections Center (CCCC), Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Washington Department of Natural Resources, CI staff (thank you Brian Peterson, Vania Beard, and Henry Mack!) and leadership, local expert beekeepers from the community, incarcerated beekeepers, and of course, the honeybees. It’s a great team; thank you everyone!

The installation crew included expert beekeepers from the Olympia area, incarcerated beekeepers from CCCC, and staff from CI and CCCC. Five expert beekeepers worked with us to bring this project to life: Maren Anderson, Gail Booth, Dixon Fellows, Andy Matelich, and team lead Laurie Pyne. They scoped-out the island and picked the best location for the bee hives inside the orchard. CCCC inmate beekeepers and and carpenters also made critical contributions to the program, too: they built the hive boxes and supporting benches, helped locate the bus stop, assisted in placement, helped move the bees, and and shone as invested partners! More recently, a major supplier of beekeeping equipment in the region, Mann Lake, donated some of the supplies the program will need as the hives grow and multiply—it is wonderful to have their support.

Honeybees are Nothing to Bee Scared of!

Two worker bees landed on Officer Epling’s fingers; in the background, incarcerated beekeepers attached handles to the hives constructed in the CCCC woodshop.

Expert beekeeper Gail Booth shows an unsure beekeeper a young worker bee that landed on the stick. Gail walked around with the female bee discussing how you could tell her age and what tasks she might perform for her hive; the informal “meet-and-greet” eased some nerves about being so close to the bees.

The Hive Boxes

Incarcerated students from CCCC’s carpentry program, with guidance from Centralia College instructor Bruce Carley, built the custom hives from reclaimed wood. Students also painted and stenciled the bee logo onto each hive box. They look great!

Following the McNeil Island launch, Laurie Pyne visited CCCC’s carpentry class and offered a talk; the students had a chance to learn more about the program and see their great hive boxes in place on the island. They also partook of a honey tasting, comparing the flavors and consistencies of honey made from six sources of nectar; wildflower honey was a favorite.

 

Suit up

The bees were transported in one of the beekeeper’s truck.  

Everyone suited up to protect against getting stung. Even though bees are docile and don’t want to sting you, sometimes they get pinched between clothes or think that the hive is threatened and then they will sting; it’s good to be prepared.

Where’s the Queen?

Expert beekeeper Andy Matelich holds up a frame and looks for the queen. The queens are a key indicator of a hive’s health, and get marked so that they could be easily found again. One of the queens dropped to the ground and could have been squished, but an incarcerated beekeeper with a good eye spotted her and saved the day!

An incarcerated beekeeper placed a frame into the new hive boxes.

Andy and the rest of the bee installation crew inspected each frame before inserting them into the new hive boxes.

At the end of the day, the bees were buzzing around their new homes, no one got stung, and everyone had learned something about bees and beekeeping…there is always more to learn when it comes to bees.

Officer Epling, left, and Officer Kennedy, right, take a minute to look at the bee hives. Officer Epling is teaching Officer Kennedy about bees and beekeeping as Officer Kennedy prepares to take over as liaison for the beekeeping program at CCCC and McNeil Island.

Astrobiology for the Incarcerated – Washington

by Joslyn Rose Trivett, SPP Education and Outreach Manager

In April, I was fortunate to spend days and days immersed in the topic of astrobiology. What is astrobiology? It is the study of how stars and planets form, how that relates to life here on Earth, and the search for life elsewhere in the Universe. Alongside hundreds of incarcerated students and dozens of corrections staff in both Washington and Ohio, I got to learn about what is known, what is still unknown, and ponder immense questions. I had stars in my eyes, for sure!

Daniella Scalice, Education and Communications Lead for NASA’s Astrobiology Program, describes element creation in the core of a star to students at Mission Creek Corrections Center. Photo by Ricky Osborne.

Dr Drew Gorman-Lewis, Associate Professor in the Earth and Space Sciences at University of Washington, responds to a question from a student at Airway Heights Corrections Center. Photo by Kelli Bush.

Washington State’s lecture series started at Mission Creek Corrections Center where they packed the gym; 150 students’ attention and curiosity gave us a great sense of success. Photo by Ricky Osborne.

Astrobiology for the Incarcerated is a new program, funded by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)’s Astrobiology Program, and in partnership with Sustainability in Prisons Project (SPP) and Utah’s Initiative to bring Science Programs to the Incarcerated (INSPIRE). The program was brought to us by Daniella Scalice, Education and Communications Lead for NASA’s Astrobiology Program; she is a master of describing exquisite concepts and making them relevant to our lives.

Here I will share details from the Washington State programs; I will share Ohio’s in part 2. In Washington, Daniella was joined by Dr Drew Gorman-Lewis, Associate Professor in the Earth and Space Sciences at University of Washington. Our small team visited five prisons in four days, reaching 450 incarcerated students and 52 corrections staff. At each venue, Drew and Daniella told us a three-part story.

Part One: Creation

Daniella introduced us to the life cycle of stars—who knew that stars had life cycles!—and how their birth, maturity, and death creates and distributes most of the elements that makes up the Universe as we know it. She told us: Every atom in our bodies, the water we drink, the food we eat, our buildings, our roads, the things we buy and make, all were built in the heart of a star. It’s a dizzying concept, one that connects everyone and everything.

She outlined how these elements may have come together in the nutrient and energy rich environments of hydrothermal vents—hot water vents at the ocean floor—to create the first microbes, the first life on Earth.

Part Two: Adaptation

Part two came from Drew. He told us about his research with microbes, single-celled organisms, that live in extreme environments on earth. His personal and professional favorites live in near-boiling pools of acid—really! He emphasized that there are microbes living and thriving in nearly every environment on Earth. Those inhabitants also influence their environments; their life processes take up, transform, and leave behind new elements and structures. The microbes can quickly adapt to take advantage of new conditions, and so back and forth, life and the Earth interact and influence each other. His research investigates how much energy microbes use to live in extreme environments, and in this way sheds a bit of light on where and how we might find microbes beyond our Earth.

Students respond to a question from Daniella. Photo by Ricky Osborne.

Part Three: Exploration

Daniella’s part three dove into this search for life, focusing on the most promising worlds within our solar system. I was amazed to learn that there are some excellent contenders! I was particularly taken by moons of Jupiter and Saturn, Europa  and Enceladus, that have global oceans: hidden beneath icy crusts, their worlds are covered with liquid water. On Enceladus, there is also evidence of geothermal vents. Given that one of the theories for the origin of life places it in Earth vents, this news of similar environments on a moon of Saturn gave me the chills (the good kind).

At every venue, the students dazzled us with ideas and questions. I think that’s the best part for me—hearing how others are making sense of the concepts, the collective insights and exploration. I learned as much from them as from the scientists…as usual!

Our second stop was Cedar Creek Corrections Center. Students and staff had to walk through the rain to attend, and still brought their best selves. Photo by Joslyn Rose Trivett.

To the class at Twin Rivers Unit, Monroe Correctional Complex, Daniella emphasized that astrobiology is not possible without collaboration, and she invited the students present to bring their diversity of knowledge and insight to the topic. Photo by Joslyn Rose Trivett.

Students had trouble signing up for the session at Washington State Reformatory, also in Monroe Correctional Complex, and that seemed to mean that only the most avidly interested were present. Their questions and comments were advanced, for sure. Photo by Joslyn Rose Trivett.

Our last stop in Washington was at Airway Heights Corrections Center. Photo by Kelli Bush.

 

All attendees left with a gorgeous, ten page summary of the presentation. Photo by Kelli Bush.

Blooms & Blossoms at Washington Corrections Center

Early-blue violet. Photo credit: Alexandra James

by Alexandra James, SPP Conservation Nursery Coordinator

Teaching Assistant, Morris Talaga, inspecting a raised bed for weeds and pests. Photo credit: Alexandra James

Spring has sprung at Washington Corrections Center (WCC)! The Conservation Nursery is well underway with the cultivation of two viola plant species (Viola adunca & Viola howellii) that currently fill the twenty-nine raised beds that compose the core of the nursery. Viola adunca, commonly known as the early-blue violet, is a critical prairie plant species for the South Sound Prairie ecosystems of Washington State and Oregon. In fact, the early-blue violet is the only food source for the silverspot butterfly’s larval life-stage. This means that the silverspot caterpillar feeds only on the early-blue violet and relies on the plants sustenance for survival. Today, the silverspot butterfly is federally recognized as endangered due to the loss of native habitat and, in particular, the loss of the early-blue violet.

Why should we care about the silverspot butterfly? Like all butterflies, the silverspot butterfly is an important pollinator species. Without pollinators, we would see a collapse of our agricultural economy, food supply, and surrounding landscapes. Pollinators are essential in preserving biodiversity, preventing soil erosion, increasing carbon sequestration, and more importantly, providing us with ecological services, including our food and raw materials.

The WCC Conservation Nursery Crew is working hard to aid in the recovery of the early-blue violet. Technicians spend a vast majority of their time learning about, sowing, cultivating, and tending to thousands of viola plants—this is what it means to be responsible for the world’s largest violet production nursery! The crew dedicates year-round attention to the successful propagation of the early-blue violet and collects viable seed during the summer months to aid in prairie conservation efforts across Washington State. The seed they collect will be shared with state agencies such as the Center for Natural Lands Management and Joint Base Lewis-McChord, and go to prairie restoration initiatives that aid in the protection of butterfly species, including the silverspot butterfly. “The work we do is important and it is great to be a part of something so important and meaningful for our community; it means so much to give back” – Teaching Assistant, WCC SPP Crew.

Spring blooms of the early-blue violet. Photo credit: Alexandra James

In addition to the viola plants, the WCC Conservation Nursery Crew has sown over thirty-five different prairie plants to be used in a Prairie Demonstration Garden that will aid in the education of prairie landscapes to WCC visitors, staff and residents. All thirty-five plants are native to the South Sound Prairies of Washington State and Oregon. The cultivation and propagation of these native plant species will support hands-on environmental education for the crew and bring awareness to the importance our state’s prairie landscapes.

Propagation tray of native prairie plant (Achillea millefolium) for the Prairie Demonstration Garden.

Checking in with the Checkerspots

by Keegan Curry, SPP Taylor’s Checkerspot Butterfly Coordinator

Each year, the Sustainability in Prisons Project’s (SPP) Taylor’s Checkerspot Butterfly Program rears thousands of endangered caterpillars for reintroduction to the wild. Incarcerated technicians at Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women (MCCCW) shepherd these rare butterflies through each of their four life stages—eggs, larvae, pupae, and adults. The transition from winter to spring is an exciting time for the program because that’s when all the action happens: the larvae wake up and begin to eat, followed shortly by pupation, adult emergence, and captive breeding.

Taylor’s checkerspots are adult butterflies for only about 5 weeks during the spring, so things happen fast; now that we’re nearing the end of “flight” season, it all feels like a white and orange blur! And yet, a lot has happened in the past few months. Two new butterfly technicians joined our team, ~2,800 post-diapause larvae were sent to Joint Base Lewis-McChord for release, 230 adult butterflies eclosed in the lab, and technicians hosted site visits for some of our most valued partners (including one very special guest). To top it all off, the MCCCW butterfly crew celebrated their most productive breeding season to date!

I am pleased to share with you some images from the 2018 rearing season. These photos highlight the tremendous efforts and accomplishments of everyone involved, including staff from Washington Department of Corrections (WA Corrections), Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), Oregon Zoo, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), and many more.

(Left to right) Technician Susan Christopher, WDFW Biologist Mary Linders, and Technicians Nichole Alexander, and Alexis Coleman work together to decide which caterpillars should be released this year and which ones should remain at MCCCW for captive breeding.

Technician Nichole Alexander labels individual deli cups full of caterpillars that have just been woken up from winter diapause. Over 3,000 hungry caterpillars now line these shelves waiting to be released!

WDFW Biologist Mary Linders directs volunteers at a Taylor’s checkerspot release site. We transport caterpillars from the prison to the field and very carefully introduce them to their new environment.

A volunteer transplants Taylor’s checkerspot caterpillars to Plantago lanceolata host plants. It is early spring, so much of the prairie vegetation has yet to flower.

A few caterpillars remain in the MCCCW lab where they will mature to produce some of the program’s next batch of eggs. Here, a few caterpillars get fat and happy as they prepare for pupation. A group of fifteen caterpillars can eat up to eight Plantago leaves per day! Technicians have to feed them constantly to keep up with their appetites.

Once they have reached the appropriate size, caterpillars crawl to the top of their mesh enclosure and hang in a ‘J’ shape before transforming into a chrysalis. Pupation is such a strange and beautiful process to behold, and MCCCW technicians get to watch it happen right before their eyes.

Midway through the season, Carolina Landa (far right) and Dennis Buckingham (second from the left) paid a special visit to the butterfly program. Dennis was the first SPP coordinator and Carolina was one of the original incarcerated technicians, and the part she played in shaping the program is legendary. Carolina returned to MCCCW and share valuable words of encouragement with the current technicians. It was a great opportunity to present Alexis Coleman, Nichole Alexander, and Susan Christopher with their Butterfly Rearing and Research Specialist certificates.

About three weeks after pupation, butterflies begin to emerge from their chrysalises. This is a rewarding moment for the butterfly technicians, but it also means more work! Each butterfly needs to be fed honey from a Q-tip, weighed on a scale, photographed, identified as male or female, and placed in the appropriate enclosure.

Technicians pair male and female checkerspots based on their genetic lineage. Males and females are introduced to each other in these mesh tents. The butterflies were very cooperative this year, wasting no time in consummating the match.

Mated pairs are removed from the breeding tents. Technicians then place the female butterflies on Plantago plant for egg-laying. The male gets to go hang out with his buddies until they are released into the field.

A mated female lays eggs near the base of Plantago lanceolata. In the wild, this is a great place to keep the eggs safe from harm, but in the lab, eggs laid this way pose a challenge for technicians. They will have to use a tiny paintbrush to remove these fragile eggs and transfer them to a 5oz cup where they will eventually hatch.

(Left to right) MCCCW Superintendent Devon Schrum, SPP Co-Director Kelli Bush, USFWS Biologist Karen Reagan, Alexis Coleman, Susan Christopher, Tracy Hatch, USFWS Division Manager Tom McDowell, Nichole Alexander, and SPP Coordinator Keegan Curry take a group photo in front of the butterfly lab. Karen and Tom from USFWS oversee Taylor’s checkerspot recovery on a regional level; they took time out of their busy schedules to visit the MCCCW captive rearing program and see firsthand the work that incarcerated technicians are doing to support endangered species conservation.

Technician Alexis Coleman shares her observations about Taylor’s checkerspot egg-laying behavior with Tom McDowell and Karen Reagan from USFWS.

This year was the most productive breeding season to date for MCCCW: our captive-bred butterflies laid over 8,000 eggs! This is great news for the program and for species recovery in the field, and the technicians at MCCCW should be proud. Their contributions are vital to restoring Taylor’s checkerspot populations in Washington State.

 

Sustainability at Olympic Corrections Center

Text and photos by Bethany Shepler, SPP Green Track Program Coordinator

I recently visited Olympic Corrections Center (OCC) on the Olympic Peninsula near Forks, Washington. OCC is a “camp” for incarcerated individuals with 4 years or less remaining in their sentence. Inmates at OCC learn trades and gain valuable experiences for when they release. Among many options available to them is working for the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) as response teams for flooding, forest fires, and other work within national parks. OCC has an impressive garden setup where they grow plants and seedlings; they use these areas as labs for learning horticultural science and plant biology (a Peninsula College program). They also have excellent composting and wood shop programs.

It was a privilege to see their programming. Here are a few snapshots of their great work.

The greenhouse at OCC has seedlings, produce, flowers, and tropical plants. They grew dozens of flower baskets for Mother’s Day, for both inmates and staff to give to their mothers and wives.

Greenhouse technicians, like Wade pictured here, care for the plants while learning how to sow and grow a prosperous garden. 

Look how big this succulent is! Greenhouse technicians have been caring for this guy for about 10 years.

Mark Case is another greenhouse technician. He hopes to have his own garden when he releases where he can put to use all of the knowledge he’s gained from working and learning in the gardens at OCC.

This pineapple isn’t ripe yet, but it sure is cute! When the pineapples are ready to eat, the technicians harvest and eat them.

Food, garden, and organic waste is composted on site at OCC. They have a large warehouse specifically designed for composting organic waste. The facility trains technicians who can then use this knowledge and skill base when they get out of prison.

OCC produced about 23 tons of compost last year alone! The product is used to amend the soil throughout the prison grounds. 

The wood shop at OCC uses donated or reclaimed wood to make wood toy trucks, tractors, and cars. Each intricately detailed toy goes to charity for children.

Here are some more completed projects awaiting to be painted with sealant. Such nice work!

Aquaponics training at Cedar Creek

Text and photos by Keegan Curry, SPP Taylor’s Checkerspot Butterfly Coordinator

Cedar Creek Corrections Center (CCCC) has partnered with Symbiotic Cycles, LLC to expand the aquaponics system in the prison’s horticulture program. Sustainability in Prisons Project (SPP) conservation technicians will be assisting the horticulture team with aquaponics, and I recently attended a training session in support of this collaboration. Cross-training in aquaponics will allow technicians who primarily work with wildlife to gain further knowledge of sustainable practices and explore an innovative technique for growing food.

CCCC horticulture and conservation technicians listen eagerly as instructors describe the importance of regenerative agriculture.

Daniel Cherniske and Nick Naselli of Symbiotic Cycles began the training with an overview of aquaponics—the marriage of aquaculture and hydroponics—followed by a detailed system orientation. Daniel and Nick dedicated a significant portion of their training to discussing sustainable food systems. We learned about soil chemistry and the decline of vital nutrients in many industrial crops along with the wasteful overuse of freshwater resources. Aquaponics offers a unique solution to these issues by creating a “closed-loop” of recycled water and converting nutrients from fish waste and bacterial respiration into a rich growing environment. The horticulture and conservation techs couldn’t stop asking questions!

The system is now operational, thanks to the hard work of CCCC staff, inmates, and partners. Soon it will be producing fresh leafy greens for the prison kitchen while functioning as an educational laboratory.

Horticulture tech William Witt looks on as Daniel Cherniske confirms that, yes, soon there will be beautiful green plants growing in this plain-looking box!

These filtration barrels will house important bacteria. They are the most sensitive part of the system and technicians must be careful not to let the valves become blocked.

Nick Naselli gestures to the filtration barrels that will take up water from the fish pond below.

A freshly introduced goldfish, whose waste will provide important nutrients for bacteria and plant growth.

Horticulture tech Lorenzo Stewart and Nick Naselli share a hilarious aquaponics joke.

Sprouts like these will soon take root in a substrate of non-toxic styrofoam floating above a pool of nutrient-rich water.

 

Collaboration is Key

By Amanda Mintz, SPP Wetland Conservation (EVM) Program Coordinator
All photos by Ricky Osborne.

The Emergent Vegetated Mats (EVM) program at Stafford Creek Corrections Center emerged from a partnership among many stakeholders: Joint Base Lewis McChord, the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the Center for Natural Lands Management, and SPP’s founding partners The Evergreen State College and Washington State Department of Corrections. On March 29th, representatives from all these organizations came together to tour the EVM nursery. We also had the chance to see other sustainability programs at work at Stafford Creek Corrections Center. Chris Idso and Kelly Peterson, DOC personnel on the leadership team at Stafford Creek, helped coordinate and facilitate the tour, and we were joined by our project liaisons Mike Granato and Ed Baldwin. It was the first visit to both the EVM nursery and a prison facility for many of our partners.

Partners view the systems inside the EVM greenhouse. Photo by Ricky Osborne.

We started in the EVM greenhouse, where we discussed past mat production and future production potential. Last year, we produced and installed more than 100 mats at south Puget Sound restoration sites! The technicians described how the system works, and we all stopped to marvel at the fish—about 130 koi provide most of the nutrients absorbed by the wetland mats.

Not just beautiful, koi are hardy fish adaptable to unexpected changes in water chemistry; this makes them perfect for an aquaponics system. Photo by Ricky Osborne.

Technician Brian Bedilion, who has worked for the EVM program since its inception in 2016, explained how working for SPP has impacted his self-confidence and goals for his future. His creativity and ability to troubleshoot on-the-fly have been integral to the success of the EVM program. Brian went home on April 13; we wish him the best, and hope to see him in the field!

Technician Brian Bedilion shares how the EVM program has influenced his life. Photo by Ricky Osborne.

SPP EVM Coordinator Amanda Mintz and Brian Bedilion say farewell at the end of the EMV portion of the tour. Photo by Ricky Osborne.

After touring the EVM greenhouse, we went inside the fence to see the prairie conservation nursery, gardens, and other sustainability programs hosted by Stafford Creek. Every living area has dedicated garden space for its residents. A larger space outside the education building is intended for men serving life sentences, and is known as the Lifer Garden. The Lifer Garden and one other at Stafford Creek grow produce for local food banks. Last year, incarcerated individuals at the prison grew and donated almost 12,000 pounds of produce!

With help from Grounds Maintenance Supervisor and SPP Conservation Nursery Liaison Ed Baldwin, the Lifer Garden is designed, built and maintained by individuals serving life sentences. Photo by Ricky Osborne.

Ed Baldwin and a technician talk outside the Prairie Conservation Nursery greenhouses. Photo by Ricky Osborne.

The prison’s grounds crew produces plants for the prison gardens, and also cultivates plants for SPP’s Prairie Conservation Nursery. Here, a technician demonstrates propagation by cutting. Photo by Ricky Osborne.

Chris Idso, left, is the longest-term champion of sustainability programs at Stafford Creek, and he’s got a good sense of humor. Photo by Ricky Osborne.

The tour ended with visits to the shop areas, where partners saw bicycle and wheelchair repair. Like all the other programs we saw at Stafford Creek, these programs bring together partners to create something of value for the benefit of our environment and our communities.