On a sweltering July afternoon, a handful of conservation professionals walked through a cornfield in Huntingdon County Pennsylvania, heading towards a stream. While that alone would be commonplace, this cadre was accompanied by a group that was far from ordinary: 20 inmates at Huntingdon State Correctional Institution and their correctional officers. They stopped a few times on the way to the tree-line, examining the slit left in the soil from a no-till drill, looking at the empty streambanks of a small tributary, and pausing over bare spots where wet soil was hampering corn growth, before ducking into the sweet shade of a mature forest. The men had learned about water quality, the Chesapeake Bay, and riparian forest buffers from a variety of guest speakers in the classroom, and now was their chance to see how these pieces fit together in the field while they looked for macroinvertebrates in the shallow stream that runs directly into the mighty Juniata River.

The inmates, who were hand-picked by Tina Hicks-Kern, Corrections Employment and Vocational Coordinator at Huntingdon State Correctional Institution, are participants in a pilot run of a new program aimed at reducing recidivism while helping the commonwealth accomplish its conservation goals. Under the fledgling Correctional Conservation Collaborative project, participants in the Riparian Forest Buffer Vocational Training are prepared to re-enter the workforce with skills to help Pennsylvania reduce nutrient and sediment pollution reaching its waterways. In the Pennsylvania buffer world, where local, state, and federal agencies and scores of non-governmental organizations are working towards reforesting their streamsides, do we need to be creating buffer professionals from whole cloth? Yes. In fact, we likely can’t do this without them.

Pennsylvania’s goals for reducing its share of pollutants reaching the Chesapeake Bay have always been immense, but with just a few years left until the 2025 EPA deadline, the numbers are looming larger than ever. The current goal for new acres of riparian forest buffer establishment is 86,500 acres. For perspective, that’s nearly twice the size of Washington DC.

This goal is theoretically attainable, but if we are to get anywhere close, we are going to need dramatic accelerations in funding, momentum, and practitioners. Those 17.3 million trees will not only need to be planted, but will need to be properly cared for, an issue that has plagued riparian reforestation for decades. Most landowners do not have the equipment, time, and expertise to complete the requisite tree establishment care duties, which boil down to managing vegetation in the buffer area, especially around each tree. Contractors who offer this service are present, but are few and far between, largely because there has not traditionally been enough funding or buffer plantings to justify the investments in time and equipment. That is now changing; riparian forest buffer planting has begun to surge again in Pennsylvania, and the maintenance of these sites in the most vulnerable first few years is now often supported with funding and technical assistance. But there are still not enough contractors distributed across the watershed who can care for these young forests.

A similar reality faces urban forestry best management practices. Street trees get planted, but there may not be arborists around later to make sure that they are properly pruned and tended to. In 2017, Shea Zwerver, Community Engagement Coordinator for the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, launched a program to intervene. Melding her passion for the environment and social justice, Shea began building a curriculum to train arboriculture techniques to inmates at Rockview State Correctional Institution in Centre County PA. The participants took an arborist short course, learned skills like tree climbing and pruning, and upon release a few began to get jobs in the field. This successful pilot program was the seed of what has grown into the Correctional Conservation Collaborative, intentionally abbreviated CCC as a nod to the Civilian Conservation Corps, which knitted environmental stewardship together with social welfare for unemployed young men during the Great Depression. Shea has since held over 343 hours of tree-related vocational instruction, reaching 172 inmates over 2 facilities and 10 programs. This past July, the Riparian Forest Buffer Vocational Training began.

Two reentrants get experience using a walk-behind brush hog, a critical tool for maintaining riparian forest buffers. Photo by Shea Zwerver.

Joining Shea in creating and coordinating the CCC Riparian Forest Buffer Vocational Training are Teddi Stark, Riparian Forest Buffer Coordinator for the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, and Ryan Davis, PA Forest Program Manager for the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay. Together the trio developed a curriculum which introduced the participants to all things buffer in the classroom, and in-depth field practice on all components of converting a treeless stream to one enclosed by a healthy forest. Over a dozen guest experts have joined in helping instruct, not only on technical skills, but also on entrepreneurship, professionalism, and business development. The participants will be well-qualified for positions in the buffer industry or other “green jobs”, from landscaping to forest management, but in the case that they cannot find employment, will be equipped to pursue their own venture in buffer maintenance. The program participants have enthusiastically taken this opportunity, and many are looking forward to working on forest buffers, even if just on the side, upon release.

The pilot class of the Riparian Forest Buffer Vocational Training will conclude in mid-October with a graduation ceremony and a forest buffer planting of 400 trees on Huntingdon SCI property. The buffer was designed by the class participants and they have been busy preparing the site over the summer between helping maintain local riparian forest buffers that were planted by partners. Many State Correctional Institutions own vast areas of land that was formerly cultivated by inmates but are now rented to local farmers. Like most agricultural property in Pennsylvania, there are huge opportunities to plant riparian forest buffers on this state-owned land, which up until now hadn’t really been considered as an avenue to accomplishing more streamside acres planted in trees. This potential for chipping away at the commonwealth’s riparian reforestation goals will hopefully help fuel the growth of the Correctional Conservation Collaborative to cover more facilities across Pennsylvania.

Tina Hicks-Kern has worked at Huntingdon State Correctional Institution for over 30 years, and sees immense potential in the Correctional Conservation Collaborative, for both her inmates and others across the commonwealth. “This program provides vocational training, but is also an opportunity for reentrants to use their heads and their hands to do positive things. They see their worth and are given the opportunity to believe in themselves, while also helping others. This program gives them something to look forward to every session; it’s a really good thing!”

Reentrants get experience planting seedlings and protecting them with different shelter types. Photo by Shea Zwerver.

The Riparian Forest Buffer Vocational Training, and indeed the Correctional Conservation Collaborative as a whole, is an excellent example of the many innovative partnerships that are springing up around the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. A diverse group of partners with an array of objectives found common ground in working together to train a new generation of riparian forest buffer professionals. Once released, the participants will be able to help Pennsylvania meet its massive riparian reforestation targets. They will give the commonwealth a chance at achieving its water quality goals, and the new forests will give participants a second chance at leading a fulfilling life on the outside.