Category Archives: Science

Biological Science Technician at Cedar Creek speaks about his time with SPP

Proudly presenting John with an SPP certificate of achievement as a turtle rehabilitation and research specialist on his last day in the program.

By John Fitzpatrick, Biological Science Technician at Cedar Creek Corrections Center.

Foreword and photos by Jessica Brown, SPP Turtle Program Coordinator. 

When John Fitzpatrick applied and interviewed for an opening with the SPP Western pond turtle program, his professional attitude and passion for learning told me right away that he would be a great asset to the team. He came highly recommended by both his fellow inmates and corrections staff, and I quickly knew why. With every weekly visit to Cedar Creek, he would greet me with a huge smile and an enthusiastically warm welcome. Upon asking how he was, his reply would always include the words, “I’m blessed!”

Over the course of his time with SPP, he was pushed out of his comfort zone but graciously accepted these new learning experiences. Most of the environmental education readings and assignments I provided to the team presented completely novel (and sometimes challenging) concepts for John, but because of his zest for learning, he thrived. It was awesome to see how excited he became when he made connections with each learning experience—and how he shared this with everyone he could. He will also be the first person to let you know of the statistics showing how the attainment of education greatly reduces recidivism rates. Education is clearly his passion!

His last day with the SPP team was a joyful one (with maybe a few tears shed) because it marks the last of his time at Cedar Creek. We wish him all the best as he begins the next part of his journey starting school during work release with the help of the scholarship he received from the Mike Rowe Foundation. He has definitely left a lasting impression on me and I’m pretty sure the opportunity with SPP has had a positive impact in his life. But, read his first blog below to see for yourself.

 

Short timing and blogging with Team SPP

John became quite comfortable handling the turtles, but this all began with a big step out of his comfort zone.

John recording woodpecker behavior while watching video footage…but it’s no surprise that he had to stop for a second to smile for the camera!

Now let me pull your coat to something about one man’s journey of success with the Sustainability in Prisons Project (SPP) team. A 141 month prison sentence to serve will make even the most ignorant person think of a lifestyle that needs some serious changing. It has been said that your life does not get better by chance, it gets better by change. I now live a life defined by principles of change; be it mindset, decision making, and really all of the choices I make from this point moving forward. I am due to be fully released on July 27, 2018 and this is my year to shine—and shine bright!

My time on the SPP team as a Biological Science Technician has awakened the caring man beneath the criminal façade. Learning and obtaining such a vast knowledge and understanding of environmental awareness has enlivened my thought process. It’s quite blissful cause I see now how environmental concerns instilled in me what the “Roots of Success” really means. I now care about this planet and animals on it like never before, so to make “hay while the sun still shines” is a priority for me. The Evergreen State is on the rise in sustainable practices and awareness inviting a greener economy. It’s more than just a want, it’s more likening to a need and a must that I do MY part in making this planet better.

To be a man amongst men for God’s beautiful Earth is my focus. There is a cliché that says “necessity is the mother of invention”, and my being on Team SPP has been a positive learning experience and motivation for my change, necessary actually. If you want to be happy, set a goal that commands your thoughts, liberates your energy, and inspires hope. I’ve discovered my own AMAZING tower of strength, and ever since, I’ve been asked about my smiling face. The question people ask is: Can I describe what success looks like? Believe you me! Many hours and minutes have been spent pondering exactly what success looks like. I’ll admit, I myself have had few and far apart many glimpses of success look-alikes, so I can honestly tell ya this: A thing of beauty is joy forever, and the grass IS greener on the other side, but only if you nurture and water it.

Now mind you, it’s only Chapter One of this new journey of mine. This is only the very beginning, and with it, there will be small successes along the way. The rest of my story is to be continued…

 

 

 

New Woodpecker Nest Monitoring Project at Cedar Creek

Text by Jessica Brown, SPP Turtle Program Coordinator and Philip Fischer, U.S. Forest Service volunteer. Photos by Jessica Brown.

USFS trainers, SPP coordinator, and participants of the woodpecker nest monitoring project training pose with bird specimens.

In November, the Woodpecker Nest Monitoring Project at Cedar Creek was launched with a two-day training for all five turtle technicians, four greenhouse workers, and two other interested individuals. The purpose of the Woodpecker Nest Monitoring Video Review is to support a multi-year research project through the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) focused on identification of nest predators. Woodpeckers are keystone species which provide cavities not only for their own nesting use but also for a broad spectrum of secondary cavity users including small mammals and other birds. Video footage comes from cameras operating 24/7 at cavity nests. This is the only sure way to document nest depredation, however, reviewing the enormous amount of video footage requires an equally enormous amount of reviewer time. In order to accurately monitor video footage, correctly identify species, and describe animal behaviors, reviewers need considerable training.

In the past, video monitoring was typically performed by undergraduate students, however, collaboration between USFS and SPP has made it possible to bring this type of education and experience into prison.

Teresa Lorenz, USFS biologist, demonstrating a woodpecker nest cavity used for nesting.

Participants at Cedar Creek received six hours of education and training from Teresa Lorenz, USFS biologist and Phil Fischer, USFS volunteer, covering woodpecker, raptor, song bird, and small mammal identification; background information relating to the project including project protocol and species behavior descriptions; and monitoring and data recording techniques. Training was successful and it was quite impressive to see how quickly all of the students picked up on all the information given to them in such a short amount of time.

Bird and mammal specimens on display were a very a helpful tool in training.

 

Phil Fischer, a volunteer with the USFS, teaching the various behaviors of woodpeckers and how to document them when reviewing video footage.

 

Following the training, the technicians did not waste any time getting started on reviewing the video footage. So far they are doing an excellent job, especially without having Teresa or Phil at hand  to answer questions on a regular basis. While the videos range from one to two hours, it is common for reviewing to take multiple hours depending on how busy the nest is. Busy nest=several data sheets!

Biological Science Technician, Modesto Silva reviewing video footage of a Northern Flicker cavity nest. This video station sits atop the mealworm rearing bins for the western pond turtle program.

 

The walls of the turtle shed are adorned with several bird species identification sheets.

 

Biological Science Technician, James Meservey collecting data on a woodpecker cavity nest.

Climate Change Symposium in Prison: Incarcerated people creating solutions

Text by Erin Lynam, Workshop Series Coordinator
Photos by Ricky Osborne

On October 18th at Stafford Creek Corrections Center, we held the first ever Climate Change Symposium in a prison. The five hour event brought together 91 environmental students, eight SPP-Evergreen staff members, five guest speakers, and five DOC staff members.

First up was Mike Burnham from Thurston Regional Planning Council (TRPC) who gave a presentation about region-wide planning and action for climate change resilience. Photo by Ricky Osborne.

 

TRPC asked participants to break into small groups to play their board game, Resilience Road. Each group collectively selected and prioritized responses to a climate change challenge for a hypothetical community. This small group included SPP Co-Director Kelli Bush. Photo by Ricky Osborne.

The exchange of ideas and insights was a highlights of the symposium. Photo by Ricky Osborne.

Students had the chance to show just how knowledgeable they are regarding environmental issues. Photo by Ricky Osborne.

But the game wasn’t all work, it was fun too! Photo by Ricky Osborne.

TRPC graciously donated a copy of Resilience Road to Stafford Creek Corrections Center so that students can continue to play and inform their work as environmental stewards. Photo by Ricky Osborne.

During the symposium students were given an opportunity to mingle and engage with guest speakers and SPP staff about climate change. Here they talk to SPP’s former Turtle Program Coordinator Sadie Gilliam. Photo by Ricky Osborne.

Next up was incarcerated environmentalist and longtime SPP participant, Toby Erhart. He shared what climate change means to him and what actions he’s taking to address it. He is an active member in the conservation nursery program, beekeeping, and the composting program at SCCC. Photo by Ricky Osborne.

After staff, guests, and students had a lively discussion over a shared lunch, members of Got Green gave a presentation. Johnny Mao, Johnny Fikru, and James Williams of Got Green presented on Got Green’s social and environmental justice work in low income and communities of color. Photo by Ricky Osborne.

During Got Green’s presentation, James Williams stated that even though the students may be apart from their community, they were not forgotten and he considered them part of his community. This acknowledgement of oneness is an incredibly rare moment in the prison environment and was moving to witness. Photo by Ricky Osborne.

To wrap up the symposium and reflect on everything they learned, SPP invited the students to share what they found most important and what steps to take next. Photo by Ricky Osborne.

To have the opportunity to spend the day learning alongside individuals who are emphatically committed to keeping our planet healthy was inspiring. Photo by Ricky Osborne.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Happenings at Cedar Creek Corrections

Text and photos by Jessica Brown, SPP Turtle Program Coordinator

After several months of planning, a new wildlife conservation program at Cedar Creek Correctional Facility will soon be up and running. We are excited to team up with biologists from the U.S. Forest Service to implement the woodpecker nest monitoring program. The program is mainly a research project: technicians review video footage of endangered woodpeckers at their nests, and document activities of animals that may depredate the nest.

Partners in endangered species conservation for Cedar Creek Corrections Center, from left to right: Technician, John Fitzpatrick, Superintendent Douglas Cole, Loretta Adams (SPP Liaison), Philip Fischer (U.S. Forest Service), Kelli Bush (SPP Co-Director), Teresa Lorenz (U.S. Forest Service), Technician William Anglemyer

In part to allow the new program, Cedar Creek’s conservation efforts will be served by a larger group of incarcerated technicians, adding about 6 more individuals to the existing two turtle technicians; the larger group will rotate through turtle and woodpecker programs, plus a future aquaponics program. Woodpecker technicians in the prison will receive similar training and education to that of undergraduate students who perform the same work. They will learn about topics such as wildlife species identification, ecology, conservation, and data documentation.

New turtle technician, Mr. Fitzpatrick leads a tour of the turtle facility at Cedar Creek.

Last month, U.S. Forest Service biologists, Teresa Lorenz and Philip Fischer were able to visit the Cedar Creek facility and turtle technicians treated them to a tour of the western pond turtle program. The newest turtle technician Mr. John Fitzpatrick did a great job of leading his first tour for an outside group. Mr. Fitzpatrick, the first incarcerated winner of a Mike Rowe Foundation scholarship, has been an excellent addition to the turtle team; he brings an infectious, positive attitude, and zest for learning. We are thankful for the animal handling skills, training, and wealth of knowledge he is receiving from veteran turtle technician Mr. William Angleymyer.

Mr. Fitzpatrick explains the mealworm rearing setup. The mealworms are a source of food for the turtles.

Cedar Creek currently has three resident western pond turtles, including one healthy turtle that was found by someone on the side of the road. Because this turtle is disease-free, he is being kept separately from the other turtles—in quarantine—until he can be released in the spring. The three turtles at Cedar Creek will be joined by 7 more by the end of November.

Training for the woodpecker nest monitoring project will take place in November where we will be joined with newly-hired technicians and members of the horticulture team.

 

Mr. Anglemyer shows the healthy turtle to Teresa and Phil from the U.S. Forest Service.

 

Turtle technicians Mr. Fitzpatrick and Mr. Anglemyer pose with the healthy western pond turtle.

 

SPP Turtle Program Coordinator, Jessica with turtle technicians, Mr. Anglemyer and Mr. Fitzpatrick

SPP Manager, Carl Elliott Receives Restorationist of the Year Award!

by SPP Co-Director Kelli Bush

Sustainability in Prisons Project’s (SPP) Conservation Nursery Manager, Carl Elliott has been awarded the Society for Ecological Restoration Northwest Chapter’s  (SERNW) Restorationist of the Year Award for 2017.

Carl receiving the Restorationist of the Year 2017 award. Photo by Keegan Curry

The award is given “in recognition of individual efforts to promote ecosystem health, integrity and sustainability through ecological restoration.” Carl brings more than two decades of professional experience to SPP, including appearances as the “Radio Gardener” on a Seattle radio program, ecological restoration work with the Nature Conservancy, experience teaching organic gardening classes and serving as a founding board member of Seattle Youth Garden Works. During his graduate work in The Evergreen State College, Master of Environmental Studies program, Carl started SPP’s first Conservation Nursery program in a Washington Department of Corrections facility in 2009.

Carl explaining how to identify harsh Indian paint brush. Photo by Shauna Bittle.

Carl giving a prairie tour. Photo by SPP Staff

SERNW presented this award in recognition of Carl’s “innovative application of horticulture to the restoration field in developing a conservation nursery program that additionally improves outcomes and conditions for incarcerated people in WA State’s correctional system.” With this award they “recognize the unique challenges and creativity needed” to develop a conservation nursery program in a prison while also providing education and training to incarecerated partners. They also state that Carl’s work has “greatly expanded capacity for native seed production needed for glacial outwash prairie restoration.”

Carl talks with incarcerated parners during a prairie nursery tour. Photo by Ricky Osborne.

With partner support, Carl has helped grow the SPP Conservation Nursery Program from one prison to three prisons, producing over 2 million native plants of about 60 different species. In 2016, Carl and the SPP staff he oversees, delivered more than 130 educational workshops and seminars for incarcerated program participants. More than 130 incarcerated people have participated in these programs since 2010. We are so grateful for all of Carl’s contributions to SPP and pleased that he has been recognized for his excellent work!

Celebrating another flight season for butterfly technicians

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

(Left to right) Jessica Stevens, Nicole Alexander, Cynthia Fetterly (seated), Susan Christopher, and Alexis Coleman pose in front of their original artwork. Ms. Stevens and Ms. Christopher painted this banner to welcome Girl Scouts Beyond Bars to the butterfly lab for a day of activities, including a unique Taylor’s checkerspot merit badge designed by Ms. Alexander.

Inmates at Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women (MCCCW) continue to amaze us. Each year, a group of dedicated technicians raise and release thousands of federally-endangered Taylor’s checkerspot butterflies. Not only do these technicians follow rigorous laboratory protocols, they develop their own personal expertise and remain adaptive to the myriad challenges of animal husbandry.

This year we were lucky to have three returning technicians on the team. Jessica Stevens, Cynthia Fetterly, and Susan Christopher have completed multiple seasons in the butterfly lab and they have an in-depth understanding of each life stage. Their experience has taught them how to read these animals down to the finest details, like determining the “instar” of a growing caterpillar or predicting how the weather might influence adult mating behavior. Returning technicians play a crucial role, and it is equally important to recruit new participants. This winter we welcomed Nicole Alexander and Alexis Coleman to the butterfly crew and they began their crash course in Taylor’s checkerspot rearing. By the end of the flight season, Ms. Alexander and Ms. Coleman were well-versed in everything from pupation to egg collection!

Thanks to all of the staff from WA Department of Corrections and MCCCW who work tirelessly to coordinate this program. And of course, we wouldn’t be here without support from the Oregon Zoo and Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife. It means a lot to have zookeepers and biologists coming to MCCCW and giving incarcerated technicians the confidence to work with this fragile and beautiful species.

Take a look at these photo highlights from the past few months.

Taylor’s checkerspot caterpillars in their newly-formed cocoons. They remain in this state for up to three weeks and then emerge as butterflies (also known as “eclosion”).

(Left to right) Cynthia Fetterly, Susan Christopher, and Jessica Stevens inspect a pupa to see if it is ready to eclose.

After wiggling free of their cocoons, two adult butterflies dry their wings. It can take several hours after eclosion before they are ready to fly.

Cynthia Fetterly searches for butterfly eggs. She has to check every inch of the plant and down in the rocks at its base. It’s a tedious but crucial task.

This female just laid a fresh cluster of eggs (the tiny yellow orbs on the leaf to her left).

(Left to right) Susan Christopher teaches new technicians Alexis Coleman and Nicole Alexander how to safely handle adult checkerspots. Technicians inspect the size and shape of the abdomen to determine whether butterflies are male or female.

All adult checkerspots must be weighed and measured. Notice how this technician grasps the butterfly with the sides of her fingers, avoiding harm to its wings.

Jessica Stevens keeps a watchful eye over adult breeding tents.

Mottled sunlight and a warm breeze are a checkerspot’s ideal conditions.

The adult life stage is a critical period in the captive rearing program. Technicians conduct dozens of breeding introductions each day, keeping track of each individual’s “matriline” in order to maintain genetic diversity.

Breeding Taylor’s checkerspot takes patience. After hours of waiting and adjusting environmental conditions, these two finally decided to mate.

Susan Christopher leads a tour of the butterfly lab for a documentary crew from PBS Nature. Photo by Kelli Bush.

PBS Nature gathers footage of Susan Christopher and Nicole Alexander double-checking their breeding data. Photo by Kelli Bush.

It’s hard to deny the charm of the Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly. We extend our gratitude to the technicians at MCCCW who continue to prove that incarcerated people can make a difference in conserving biodiversity.

 

 

 

Cedar Creek Turtle Release 2017

By Turtle Technician, William Anglemyer
Photos by Sadie Gilliom

On the morning of April 17th, ten turtles from the SPP Cedar Creek Turtle Program were released onto a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife site in Lakewood, WA. The turtles had been receiving care at the Cedar Creek Corrections Center since November of 2016.

The turtle habitat

It was great to see them swim off into the ponds. Some of them had very extensive wounds when they were first arrived CCCC. As the technicians that care for the turtles after their treatment at PAWS, we were relieved to see them finally out of captivity. When they are in our care, they are provided the best treatment possible. Warm water to heal in, high protein food to eat, a clean tank habitat-all are provided at our rehabilitation facility. However, these are wild creatures and, as such, they belong in the wild-not in a tank.

Getting ready to release!

Immediately after being placed in the shallows, and even though western pond turtles are not the most expressive species, we interpreted their lack of hesitation swimming into the pond as revealing a kind of excitement for being back into the wilds. They were taken from the plastic shoebox containers used to transport them and placed them in the shallow water on the bank. We each grabbed a turtle and released them at the same time. We repeated this until all 10 turtles were released. As they left our hands, they swam as fast as they could until they disappeared into the murkiness of the pond.

Turtle Technicians, Mr. Anglemyer and Mr. Eldridge, releasing the turtles.

Sadly, we realize that this may not be the last time these turtles experience release from captivity back into the wild; some may have to return to captivity for re-treatment. The shell disease that is plaguing these turtles is still being researched and much is yet unknown. Biologists and veterinarians are working hard to figure out what causes the disease and how to cure it effectively.

What do the students get from SPP lectures? Part Three

Part Three: Session at the Women’s Prison

If you haven’t already read Part One, you can do so here, and Part Two is here.
Photos and text by Joslyn Rose Trivett, SPP Education and Outreach Manager

The WCCW visit room and sometimes-classroom is captured in the mirror at the front.

In January, we presented lecture survey results to students at the men’s prison, and gathered their feedback and ideas (that story here). We needed to repeat the process at Washington Corrections Center for Women (WCCW), but had to wait until there was an opening in the lecture series schedule. That time came in March.

As a part of the presentation, Liliana also gave an overview of SPP programs statewide and at WCCW.

The program classroom at WCCW can have a very different feel than the one at Stafford Creek Corrections Center. Lectures are held in the visit room. The layout is not ideal, and the buzz of vending machines can be a distraction. That day, we learned from the students that program demand is met just fine by the seats and sessions available—they aren’t clamoring for more, like we hear from the male students. While Stafford Creek has nearly 2,000 residents, WCCW has less than 800, and WCCW residents can choose from a relative abundance of programming. These factors likely contribute to a somewhat more casual classroom atmosphere than at the men’s prison.

Again, Liliana Caughman presented her report from the lecture series surveys, and again the students nodded with agreement at the results. However, this group was more quick to talk about a negative result: the small number of students (5%) who respond negatively to the lectures. A student self-identified as one of these, and I was glad to hear more from her when we broke into small groups: her critique was more acute than others’, but the particulars were similar to widely-expressed comments.

More engaging!

In my small group, we passed a talking piece to make sure everyone had chances to talk, and I think it made for a high quality discussion. A few students shielded themselves from potential germs by only handling the talking piece with the help of a napkin.

Liliana, Elijah Moloney, and I each sat with a third of the group to further discuss the program and program surveys. From nearly everyone in my group, I heard that they want more interactive and varied sessions. Several students said they struggle to sit still and pay attention through a 90 minute presentation. I heard that a short presentation is fine, and especially if it includes a way to take notes (we would need to provide the paper and pencils), humor, specimens, live animals, or video. They asked us to make time for writing, worksheets, quizzes on the content, games, and individual or small group exercises. Overall, they want content that’s more “sticky.” All this lead to the most potent suggestion: they aren’t very interested in lectures, so why not call the program something else?

Good point! I recall Sarah Weber’s research 2012 study that “… the lecture-style presentations appeared more effective for for male students, whereas workshop-style presentations appeared more effective for female students in improving inmate knowledge and attitudes on environmental topics.”  More recent results from the men’s prison, including what we heard during the January session, point to a wide-spread preference for interactive, more engaging sessions. Lectures may be more effective at conveying information, at least for some groups, but workshops have a wide-spread, strongly positive effect on environmental attitudes.

Topics & Surveys

The students asked for sessions on sociology, psychology, communications, physiology, mental plasticity, and evolution. These are some of my favorite topics too.

Like the male students, they asked for more knowledge questions. A few suggested more variety in the questions about attitude, so that respondents are less likely to answer automatically.

What next?

I find it super satisfying to have extensive qualitative and quantitative results on the program; it makes it easy to decide what next! Here is what we will do:

  • Rename the program. Science and Sustainability Lecture Series has served us well for years, but it’s time for an upgrade. Program partners have agreed on Environmental Engagement Workshop Series.

  • Update guidelines for guest presenters, with pointers on how to create inspiring, challenging, “sticky,” content.
  • Recruit guests with expertise on social, political, physiological, and evolutionary aspects of the environmental field.
  • Increase the number of knowledge questions on the surveys.
  • Use a larger set of attitude questions, varying which are included each time; some questions will ask about identity and plans for action.

We have already started work on each of these actions. Liliana has started using the new name with guest presenters, and was pleased to see that the word “workshop” had the desired effect on their planning and facilitation.

I still recognize that seven years’ data from the Science and Sustainability Lecture Series showed us that the program has been enormously successful and well received. Now we are ready to make it even better!

What do the students get from SPP lectures? Part Two

Part Two: Session at the Men’s Prison

If you haven’t already read Part One, you can do so here.
Phot0s and text by Joslyn Rose Trivett, SPP Education and Outreach Manager

Lecture Series students at Stafford Creek Corrections Center were attentive to Liliana Caughman‘s report of survey results. They showed signs of agreeing with all that she shared from program evaluation. They know first hand that they have gained knowledge from the series, that their environmental attitudes have become more positive, and that they prefer interactive, relevant content, just as the results said.

More exciting and illuminating was the quantity and quality of ideas they offered for improving the series and evaluation surveys. Elijah Moloney, Lecture Series Intern, Liliana, and I each circled up with a third of the students present, and gathered many salient observations and recommendations.

Huge demand

Lecture Series intern Elijah Moloney shares his views on climate change and environmental justice.

We learned that the demand at Stafford Creek to attend the series far exceeds classroom capacity–the sign up is filled almost as soon as it is posted, and many students are disappointed when they are not able to claim a seat. They said we could easily fill a classroom twice the size, and that they would be willing to undergo a pat-down search for lectures held in the much-larger visiting room. Some pointed to the value of inviting/including new folks who could represent new and diverse points of view.

Students also recognized that they prefer more interactive sessions, and want each person to have a chance to give input and ask questions. That points to increasing the number of lectures, perhaps repeating content for morning and afternoon sessions.

Topics

The students at Stafford Creek express interest in a huge variety of sustainability and environmental topics. New topic requests I heard were economic and political aspects of climate change—I agree that there is much to learn and consider in that arena! A few students spoke of their frustrations of not having their requests filled, or that they have missed the presentation when their request was met. Again, this points to the desire to increase program access and scope.

One student shared in writing that he was offended by how we described extending the environmental movement to represent all races and cultures. I am still struggling to figure out how to promote increasing environmental equity without suggesting that I am rejecting people who already identify as environmentalists or students of sustainability.

Surveys

To our surprise, the students generally supported ongoing surveys; they were not experiencing survey “burn out” as we had feared. However, they had concrete suggestions for how to revise them:

  • more true and false questions, including some more difficult queries
  • since nearly all attending the lecture series have highly positive attitudes about the environment, shift to measuring each lecture’s impact on empowering action
  • provide work sheets to fill in during and/or after the session

What an awesome group of students!

In our next post we will share what we heard from the sister program at Washington Corrections Center for Women, and divulge the program revisions we have planned in response to the students’ written and spoken input.

 

 

The Challenges—and Opportunities—of a New Program

Text and photos by Amanda Mintz, SPP EVM Program Coordinator

Brian Bedilion and Rudy Smale compare a water quality test to a color chart.

From a tilapia farm to a wetland plant nursery, the aquaponics house at Stafford Creek Corrections Center has experienced major transformations over the past year. Creating a new program brings many challenges, particularly when we start from scratch with no existing model to imitate. Careful monitoring and teamwork means we can meet those challengers, and constantly improve the system.

What’s in a Name?

We often call our program the EVM, a name that rolls easily off the tongue. But not everyone knows that EVM stands for Emergent Vegetated Mat, or what an Emergent Vegetated Mat even is! To meet this challenge, EVM program technicians receive training in wetland ecology, plant propagation, and aquaponics, and are capable of explaining what we do to anyone who asks.

Technicians learned about the functions of wetlands, such as water holding capacity demonstrated by peat pods, and phytoremediation: the ability for wetland plants to absorb and transform pollutants.

Ecosystem Balance

Our aquaponics system relies on symbioses among fish, bacteria, and plants; for the system to thrive, maintaining optimal water quality is a constant concern. The aquaponics unit is a living system which can, at times, be unpredictable. Technicians monitor water quality daily, looking for changes in dissolved oxygen, ammonia, nitrate, and pH that could indicate a problem. Solutions to an imbalance can be as simple as increasing the water flow to plants, or as complex as adding a new heating system. With time and experience, we have learned how to increase the stability of the system through understanding the specific needs of the living things it supports.

Technicians monitor water quality with aquarium test kits. Occasionally water is taken back to The Evergreen State College‘s laboratory and tested there to make sure the kits are taking accurate readings.

Critter Control

Any nursery will eventually experience a critter invasion. Red-legged frogs and spiders are frequent visitors to the facility, as are less desirable critters like aphids. Technicians use low-impact methods to keep pests at bay, such as manual removal or biodegradable soap. As you can see, our plants are thriving (and the frogs are happy)!

Kent Dillard and Rudy Smale use manual control and biodegradable soap to remove aphids from the mats without harming plants or fish.

Over the next few months, the addition of two new hoop houses will significantly increase our capacity for mat production. We look forward to facing the challenges of expanding the EVM program now that we have a year’s experience under our belts. None of these projects would be possible without the tireless effort of Stafford Creek Corrections Center maintenance mechanics and plumbers, the EVM technicians, the folks at Center for Natural Lands Management and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, and all our funders: Washington Department of Corrections, Department of Defense, and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (with a little help from us at SPP)!

This red-legged frog, lounging on the edge of a coir mat, is a frequent visitor to the aquaponics house!