The Moss Man of Cedar Creek

With time on their hands and a desire to help, inmates learn to grow endangered forest plants.

Slow-growing mosses stripped from trees for use in the horticulture and florist trades can take decades to grow back.

Inmate Hudson is a large man with a shaved head and huge, tattooed biceps. For the last years of his prison sentence, he's been gathering moss—the ferny Hylocomium splendens to be precise. As part of a conservation research project, Hudson (not his real name) not only gathers moss, he studies it under various conditions to determine the best way to farm the plant. He and several other inmates hope to save the moss from extinction, and ergo, stem the decline of everything else that depends on it.

According to Nalini Nadkarni, an ecologist and forest-canopy expert at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., mosses that cover branches and trunks of trees in old-growth forests like those in the Pacific Northwest fill critical ecological roles. They intercept and retain nutrients from the atmosphere, and provide habitat and food for mammals, birds, and invertebrates. But extensive harvesting of mosses for the horticulture and florist trades has literally outstripped the plant's ability to grow back in amounts sufficient to maintain its role in the ecosystem. That can take several decades.

The solution, Nadkarni says, is to learn to farm the commercially popular mosses and let the forest plants recover. "But no protocols exist for growing mosses commercially or in large quantities," she said. "I needed help from people who have long periods of time to observe and measure the growing mosses, access to extensive space to lay out plant flats, and fresh minds to put forward innovative solutions."

Nadkarni didn't actually shout, "Eureka!" when the idea came to her, but it was that kind of moment. In 2004, she began her innovative Moss-In-Prison project with inmates at the Cedar Creek Corrections Center in nearby Littlerock, to learn how to grow and propagate old-growth-forest mosses for sale.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, nearly 2.3 million people were incarcerated in the United States in 2006—more than in any other country. Half of those are serving time for non-violent offenses.

Most of the inmates at the minimum-security Cedar Creek work prison are serving the last 18 months of their sentences and were moved from medium- and maximum-security institutions where they spent barely an hour a day outdoors. Crimes range from robbery to illegal-drug activity to involuntary manslaughter.

As for captive mosses, they grow slowly but are hardy and resilient to drought and over-watering. That makes them perfect for novice botanists, Nadkarni says, and increases the chances the inmates would be successful in nurturing the plants. With samples legally harvested from the Olympic National Forest, the experiments started with basic questions: which species would be best to use? How much water and nutrients do mosses need? Should solutions be delivered as droplets or as mist?

Prisoners devised their own experimental designs, including how to "garden" the plants with various hanging methods and alternate watering protocols, and learned randomized sampling techniques to increase statistical validity. Some even chose not to open their data notebooks to other inmates to avoid biasing their observations.

After 18 months, data were compiled and numbers crunched, which led to the project's first scientific publication this past August of optimal watering procedures for maximum growth.

With the project now in its fourth year, Nadkarni says the benefits have been many—both to society and science. The prisoner's moss-husbandry techniques have been defined enough to approach a few online nature-gift companies about selling pots of the plants labeled "sustainably grown" and include educational information about old-growth forest ecosystems.

And Cedar Creek has become a model of sustainable living. As offshoots of the moss project, the facility now operates an organic-vegetable garden that produces some 15,000 pounds of produce each year, a worm ranch, an apiary and a rainwater collection system. Under the prison's zero-waste policy and other state environmental mandates, residents compost (they call it "con-post") or recycle nearly everything. The Department of Corrections awarded Nadkarni a grant to expand the activities to three other state prisons.