Inmates cultivate sagebrush seedlings as part of the Sagebrush in Prisons project in institutions across the West. Photo courtesy Stacy Moore / Institute for Applied Ecology.

Nevada BLM offices expect to scale back their plans to replant sagebrush in fire-damaged land as federal funding to grow seedlings in prisons is held up without clear explanation.

A BLM Nevada spokesman said Thursday that the Carson, Winnemucca and Elko districts had projects lined up in expectation of receiving 300,000 plants this fall from the Sagebrush in Prisons program, run by the Oregon-based Institute for Applied Ecology. But the $250,000 the program was expecting from the federal government to has not been released, forcing the institute to scramble for private donations and grant funding.

For now, the program that operated on inmate labor at three prisons in Nevada is cancelled, and the BLM is instead considering options that are expected to be nearly twice as expensive per seedling as the prison program. Only two nurseries in the region are able to supply the BLM.

“The Carson, Winnemucca and Elko Districts have fire rehabilitation funding to purchase plants from other sources but the number of sagebrush plugs grown and planted in NV will likely will be scaled back by an unknown amount,” Nevada BLM spokesman Christopher Rose told The Nevada Independent. “We are continuing to search for other sources capable of producing sagebrush seedlings.”

The cost of seedlings — called plugs — varies widely depending on the scale of production, Rose said. Although the Nevada Department of Forestry estimates it would cost $2.25 per plug from small scale production, the institute estimates its small-scale production at prisons would yield plugs at $1.30 each.

Institute educational programs director Stacy Moore said senators in Oregon have been reaching out to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s office to ask why the money hasn’t been released. So far, Moore said, the answer is that “the program is under review.”

Zinke’s office didn’t respond to an inquiry from the Independent on why it was withholding funding this year, what the review was seeking to find out or when it might be complete. Inmates typically sow seeds in late April, leaving little time to reboot the program for the 2018 season if funding does indeed come through.

The Nevada Department of Corrections has all but conceded it won’t offer the program this year. Beyond the lack of funding, the prisons are under austerity measures at the direction of the governor’s office as officer overtime costs have spiraled, and they are phasing out activities that aren’t empirically shown to improve an inmate’s chances of success on the outside.

“We are sorry to see it go, but without the assistance of Applied Ecology we don’t have anyone to run the program,” said prisons spokeswoman Brooke Santina. “For now, with the overtime issues we have been facing, we can’t dedicate an officer to a program unless it is evidence based and promoting the mission of the department which has to do to preparing inmates for successful re-entry.”

Still, the institute isn’t giving up on the program. Moore said enough money has been raised in the past few months through private donations and grants that two Oregon prisons are expected to grow sagebrush this year, and a Wyoming prison may also pull it off, although even that would be a downgrade from the 10 prisons in the West that had the program last year.

Moore added that she’s scheduled a conference call this week with Coeur Mining in hopes that it will contract with the institute for sagebrush seedlings needed to restore sage grouse habitat around Nevada sites. If the partnership works out, inmates could see the return of a program this season that gives them hands-on cultivation experience, as well as periodic educational lectures on ecology and conservation.

“This program should be a nonpartisan program,” Moore said Friday. “It’s just a win-win-win for communities and inmates, and I would like to see the funds released so we can continue to help with these wildfires, help prevent erosion and get the ecosystem growing.”