Shawn Virgillo has always loved the outdoors. He grew up among farms and forests in Astoria, Oregon, near where the Columbia River empties into the Pacific. He used to make regular trips to the state’s eastern border to fish on the Snake River, and would roll down his car window to catch the bitter, citrusy scent of sagebrush baking in the high-desert sun. He was wild about that smell.

Now Virgillo lives just a few miles from the river, but he likely won’t fish again until 2022. For two years he’s been among the 200 inmates in the minimum-security section of the Snake River Correctional Institution, Oregon’s biggest prison. Virgillo was convicted of assault in 2017. He knew the officers who arrested him from his work in the event-security business. It was humiliating. “I never, ever expected myself a bad person,” he says. “I made a mistake.”

On a cold November morning, Virgillo is back outside—escorted by a corrections officer. Dressed in denim-and-neon-yellow uniforms stamped INMATE, he and 10 other prisoners walk out the front door, through a perimeter gate, around the corner to a greenhouse. At workbenches they find a familiar rhythm, leavening their labor with ribbing and inside jokes. Deftly they rap the edges of conical containers to knock loose the contents: healthy gray-green seedlings of Wyoming big sagebrush.

Shawn Virgillo prepares to pack up a tray of sagebrush seedlings in the Snake River Correctional Institution greenhouse. Mike Fernandez/Audubon

Gnarled and drab, this subspecies rarely reaches more than a few feet tall. The plant may not inspire awe like a redwood or saguaro, but it defines its landscape as much as those giants do. Sagebrush is the cornerstone of an ecosystem that supports more than 350 animal and plant species. Nearly 100 types of birds inhabit the sagebrush steppe, and many are highly if not entirely dependent on the plant itself for food or habitat. Greater Sage-Grouse, which nest under its branches and eat nothing but its leaves in winter, so rely on sagebrush that they’re viewed as emblems for the entire ecosystem. And what they signify is a system in peril. Their population has dwindled to as few as 200,000 from perhaps 16 million before European settlement, during which time development, fire, and other forces have degraded more than half of the immense sagebrush sea.

These are among the lessons that Virgillo and other inmates have learned as participants in the Sagebrush in Prisons Project. It’s a partnership between the Institute for Applied Ecology (IAE), an Oregon-based nonprofit focused on conserving native species; the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which is struggling to stem the loss of sagebrush on its vast western holdings; and state corrections departments eager to provide skill-building work programs for the incarcerated. In the spring, inmates sow BLM-collected seeds in trays indoors. They spend the summer caring for the seedlings, guided by IAE staff. Come fall, those with clearance to leave prison grounds plant the young shrubs in areas scorched by wildfire, hoping they will take hold and ultimately mature enough to support sage-grouse and myriad other wildlife.

State prisons across the West, along with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and
the nonprofit Institute for Applied Ecology, are working to combat sagebrush habitat loss.
Video: Mike Fernandez/Audubon

It wasn’t clear if the project itself would take root when it began at Snake River in 2014. At the time, few had tried growing sagebrush at prisons. But about 15 men produced 20,000 plants that first year, and the BLM was impressed with the healthy seedlings. The program now includes an educational component on sagebrush ecology, and it has expanded to other prisons. In 2019, 519 inmates at nine facilities in five states grew 421,000 seedlings. All told, these men and women have helped grow about 1.5 million sagebrush plants. For reference, in a good year the BLM and its contractors might plant up to a half-million seedlings across the 5.1-million-acre management district that encompasses Snake River. “This program is restoring habitat and restoring hope,” says Stacy Moore, who runs the prisons project and is the IAE’s ecological education program director. “I’ve had men and women say, ‘This is the first time that I’ve been able to give back.’”

For inmates, the project provides a wellspring of positivity and purpose in what can be a dehumanizing environment. “We can get out, and we can do something that has merit, helping nature,” Virgillo says. “To know that I’m a part of trying to protect them little birds, it’s really neat. There’s so many other animals that rely on it, too.”

Sown in spring and cared for all summer by inmates, tiny seeds (top) by fall transform into plucky sagebrush seedlings with deep, healthy roots, ready for transplanting to restore habitat. Photos: Mike Fernandez/Audubon

As the greenhouse warms in the morning sun, the men fill plastic bags with eight seedlings each, then pack cardboard boxes with 22 bags apiece. Tomorrow, under guard, they’ll travel about 30 miles from the prison to round out the season by planting these nearly 5,000 seedlings, the last of the year’s crop after BLM staff took more than 50,000 to a burn site.

But that’s later. Now they must return to their bunks for a pre-lunch headcount. The officer leads them back inside. The prison gate clangs shut behind them.

A century before it became the backdrop of countless cowboy flicks, the sagebrush sea struck white travelers as bleak and oppressively vast. “Nothing was to be seen but the artemisia, or wild sage, which is extremely uninteresting, having neither beauty nor usefulness to recommend it,” one irritable expeditionist wrote in 1849. “I have traveled for days before reaching the Columbia River where nothing could be seen on the highlands and plains but the artemisia.”

Such impressions weren’t merely the product of sunburn or saddle soreness. The 18 sagebrush species once dominated some 150 million acres in the West. Since then humans have steadily whittled away the habitat and, consequently, its wildlife.

Greater Sage-Grouse suffered such severe declines that they were headed for listing under the Endangered Species Act. But conservationists, energy companies, ranchers, and other stakeholders hammered out an agreement to steer development from the bird’s best remaining habitat, leading the federal government in 2015 to opt for keeping the species off the list. Then in March 2019 the Trump administration threw out those management plans, whose terms it had flouted anyway, replacing them with looser restrictions in its push to unfetter fossil fuel companies. Even as BLM scientists work to conserve the sagebrush ecosystem, the agency’s energy and minerals program has been so aggressive in leasing sage-grouse habitat that a federal judge in October froze the rollback until the court can determine if it’s legal, ordering the administration to once more follow the terms of the 2015 deal.

In the country around the Snake River prison, it’s easy to see other threats to the sagebrush steppe. Oregon farmers have converted large tracts of native shrubland to fields of onions, potatoes, and alfalfa. Just across the river in Idaho, metro Boise’s urban sprawl swallows more sagebrush every year.

But here and in much of the West, a bigger menace looms: fire. Between 2000 and 2018, nearly three-quarters of Interior Department–managed acres that burned were shrubland and grassland, not the forests that wildfire news reports typically bring to mind. That includes more than 15 million acres of lost sagebrush. Fire is hitting some parts of the sagebrush steppe up to 50 times more frequently than it did historically, and massive blazes covering hundreds of thousands of acres are becoming more and more common.

While a warming, increasingly arid climate contributes to this quickening onslaught, the more immediate cause is a wildly successful invasive plant called cheatgrass. Native to Eurasia, the aggressive annual made its way to North America on 19th-century ships. It spread quickly, aided by railroads and livestock, and now inhabits more than 100 million acres in the West. Unlike native perennials, it dies off by early summer, providing kindling that causes more frequent blazes. When the smoke clears, cheatgrass beats sagebrush and other species to the draw, crowding out native seedlings and creating conditions for more sage-devouring fires.

“We’re losing a lot of sagebrush, and it is not recovering out there on the landscape,” says Michele Crist, a BLM Fire and Aviation Program landscape ecologist and Audubon board member. “Instead, what we’re getting are these monocultures of cheatgrass. It will take years and years to restore these landscapes back to being sagebrush-dominated.”

Shortening that recovery time is critical for sagebrush-reliant species. Sage-grouse, for example, return to the same breeding area each spring, even after a fire, but they generally need sagebrush cover to hide from predators and nest successfully. Scientists who are scrambling to improve restoration techniques have learned that sowing seeds has a depressingly low success rate. Hand-planting seedlings is far more effective, but it takes considerably more time and labor.

Time is one thing inmates have in surplus, and many of them view labor—even hard, dangerous work like fighting fires, which several Sagebrush in Prisons Project participants do—as a welcome break from the monotony, negativity, and violence that often ensnare those inside. In a country with the world’s largest incarcerated population, there’s always the risk that the government will exploit or grow dependent on captive labor, says David Fathi, director of the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. But as long as inmates are fully informed of any risks involved—and growing sagebrush is more tedious than dangerous—work programs can be mutually beneficial. “Ninety-seven percent of prisoners are eventually going to get out and come home and live next door to you and me,” Fathi says. “Giving prisoners job skills and training is one of the best things you can do to ensure, or at least maximize, the chance of a successful reentry that doesn’t involve a return to prison.”

Inmates at some facilities are paid a small wage for growing sagebrush. All of them do the work voluntarily, Moore stresses, and they have to apply for a position. While rules prevent her from contacting participants after they leave