At Owens Valley’s Conservation Camp, more than 100 non-violent state inmates live and train as firefighters each year. But what many don’t know, is how those inmates help enhance local communities while they’re here.
In addition to fighting wildfires across the state, the five crews from the Owens Valley Conservation Camp handle vegetation management work, general clean-up, construction projects and repairs at a number of locations throughout the county, including at local schools, the Tri-County Fairgrounds and county-operated campgrounds and parks.
According to Battalion Chief Ron Janssen, since January of this year, the conservation crews provided 16,088 man hours of community service in addition to the 6,300 man hours the crews served fighting wildfires this year.
“We do a lot of projects with Inyo County Parks and Recreation, we do a lot with almost all the schools, Laws Railroad Museum, Department of Fish and Wildlife hatcheries, the airports, we do all the landfills, walking the fence line picking up trash there, and we do a lot of projects that are our own, on our station and grounds,” Jenssen said.
Much of the work the conservation crews do is state-mandated care of state grounds and facilities, like the Tri-County Farigrounds in Bishop. But other entities, like the U.S. Forest Service, California DFW and Inyo County have the option of hiring the conservation camp crews to handle part of the labor load.
Janssen explained that local and state agencies can “sponsor” work days at a cost of $225 per day per crew. (Private entities cannot contract with the conservation camp.) Of that fee, $200 goes to the camp, to pay for fuel, equipment maintenance and the $1.45 per day the inmates work. The remaining $25 goes to the state to handle administration of the program.
Janssen said that the money the inmates make goes towards restitution for their crimes. Once restitution is fully paid off, the inmates can keep the money from work days.
But an added bonus to the inmate work program is that the inmates are developing skills that they can use once they are released.
“They do learn quite a bit while they’re here,” Jenssen said. “A lot of (the inmates), when they come into the camp, they don’t have every day ordinary skills, like how to mow their lawn. Here, they’re learning different types of trades that they will be able to take with them when they get out.”
In addition to the 1,832 crew days that inmates spend training as firefighters, Janssen said inmates also get on-the-job training for construction projects, laying cement and even backcountry trail restoration.
A majority of the work the conservation crew handles is fire related – the clearing of defensible space around schools and public buildings and fuel reduction efforts in and around local communities.
But each of the five crews also has a section of highway under the Adopt-a-Highway program that they clean up every other month or so (depending on time constraints due to statewide fire calls).
The crews are also busy each year working on invasive weed control, like the salt cedar eradication program on the Lower Owens River. During the winter, Jenssen said crews do a lot of snow removal work in Mammoth and greater Mono County to ensure that fire hydrants and other infrastructure is accessible in the event of emergencies.
The Conservation Camp was founded in February of 1960. The Round Valley location was selected by residents of the Owens Valley. By September of 1962 ground was broken and the camp was officially named “Inyo-Mono Conservation Camp.” By late October of 1963 the formal dedication and opening of the camp was held.
Between the years of 1963 and 1982 the operating agency of the camp varied between the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and the California Conservation Corps. Since Jan. 1, 1982 the camp has been operated by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in conjunction with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (now CalFire).