On a sweltering July afternoon, a handful of conservation professionals walked through a cornfield toward a stream in Huntingdon County, PA. 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 to examine the slit left in the soil from a no-till drill and look at the empty stream banks of a small tributary. They paused near bare spots where wet soil was hampering corn growth, before ducking into the 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. This 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 Juniata River.

The inmates, who were hand-picked by Tina Hicks-Kern, corrections employment and vocational coordinator at Huntingdon SCI, are participants in a pilot program aimed at reducing recidivism while helping the state accomplish its conservation goals.

Under the fledgling Correctional Conservation Collaborative project, participants receive riparian forest buffer vocational training to help them re-enter the workforce with skills to help reduce nutrient and sediment pollution reaching waterways.

In Pennsylvania, where local, state and federal agencies, as well as scores of nongovernmental organizations, are working to reforest stream banks, we not only need to create buffer professionals — it’s likely the state can’t accomplish its goals without them.

Pennsylvania’s task to reduce its share of pollutants reaching the Bay has always been immense, but with just a few years left until the 2025 Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load deadline, the numbers are looming larger than ever. The target 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 must 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 been enough funding or buffer plantings to justify the investments in time and equipment. That is 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. The participants took an arborist short course and learned skills like tree climbing and pruning, Upon release, a few of the graduates got 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 provided more than 343 hours of tree-related vocational instruction, reaching 172 inmates at two facilities and 10 programs. The Riparian Forest Buffer Vocational Training began in July.

Joining Shea in creating and coordinating the training are Teddi Stark, riparian forest buffer coordinator for the DCNR, and myself, the Pennsylvania Forest Program manager for the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay. Together we developed a curriculum that introduces inmates 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.

More than a dozen guest experts have helped to teach not only technical skills, but also 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.

In the event that they cannot find employment, participants will be equipped to pursue their own venture in buffer maintenance. They 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 concluded in mid-October with a graduation ceremony and a forest buffer planting of 400 trees on Huntingdon SCI property. The buffer was designed by class participants, who were busy preparing the site over the summer when they weren’t helping to maintain local riparian forest buffers planted by the program’s 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 the state, 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 state’s riparian reforestation goals could help to fuel the growth of the Correctional Conservation Collaborative at more state facilities.

Hicks-Kern, who has worked at Huntingdon SCI for more than 30 years, sees immense potential in the collaborative for both the inmates and others across the state. “This program provides vocational training, but is also an opportunity for re-entrants 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, she said. “This program gives them something to look forward to every session; it’s a really good thing!”

The Riparian Forest Buffer Vocational Training, and indeed the Correctional Conservation Collaborative as a whole, is an 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, participants will be able to help Pennsylvania meet its massive riparian reforestation targets and water quality goals, and the new forests will give participants a second chance to lead a fulfilling life on the outside.