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One-time Forest Grove City Council candidate manages inmate work camp for the Oregon Department of Forestry



In winter, when forestry work is out in the pouring rain, the South Fork Forest Inmate Camp isn't as popular with inmates as in late summer, when fire season roles around, said Camp Manager Nathan Seable. That's when more inmates around the state want to be here. Fires mean exciting work, excellent food, and more pay.On a remote hill in the Tillamook State Forest, a man with a dark goatee and cowboy boots scans the South Fork Forest Inmate Camp below him, where people in uniform and prison garb are busy with their daily routines.

Nathan Seable manages the camp. A Forest Grove resident and chair of the city’s Public Safety Advisory Commission, Seable has a commanding presence. He’s affable and reassuring but also stern and assertive. Walking through the compound, his peripheral vision keeps track of camp residents, who respond attentively when he or other staff are near.

Seable and his staff provide specialty training and manage the work and daily activities of more than 170 inmates as they provide cost-effective labor for reforestation, campground and trail maintenance, wildland firefighting, and other jobs across the state. He’s proud of what they’ve accomplished from their remote corner of the woods.

“We’re changing lives while improving forest health. South Fork is focused on rehabilitation of forests and people,” said the one-time Forest Grove City Council candidate.

“Here we have a dedicated place where individuals with a troubled past or a series of poor decisions can re-invent and apply themselves, learn new skills and expertise, and prepare for life after incarceration,” Seable said.

Established in 1951, South Fork is the only Oregon Department of Corrections institution sited on state-owned forestland, and the only prison facility owned and jointly operated by two state agencies, representing a 60-year partnership between the Oregon Department of Forestry and DOC.

The screening process for selecting inmates to become camp residents is rigorous, evaluating a variety of variables, and DOC staff are constantly working to sustain a healthy population of eligible camp workers.

“We’re a production-based operation averaging 28,000 man days of skilled inmate labor annually, saving the state a considerable amount in labor costs,” said Seable. The camp property includes metal fabrication, woodworking and tool maintenance shops, storage warehouses, a 300,000-seedling-capacity tree cooler, inmate housing units, a chapel, classrooms, kitchen, and an administration building.

Inmate-managed gardens provide fresh produce for meals, an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife fish hatchery rears salmon and steelhead for northwest rivers, and a softball field allows for healthy recreation on the weekends.

But only after the real work is done.

And everyone has a job to do, whether working on camp facilities or coming back from a supervised day of planting trees, maintaining campgrounds, or suppressing wildfires in the summertime.

But the facility is rarely in the spotlight. Seable said sometimes South Fork’s positive impact on individuals and communities goes unnoticed due to a low profile and remote location. In general, he finds people aren’t often informed about the low-risk nature of the inmates working on public lands — or about their enthusiasm for giving back to the community.

“Sometimes the work we do in the woods goes unrecognized. It’s easy to quantify the number of trees we plant and miles of trail maintained every year, which speaks for itself in terms of good work accomplished,” Seable said.

But the success of a unique place like the South Fork Forest Camp hasn’t come without challenges, Seable points out. Funding and a variety of different approaches to state forest management continue to pose questions for ODF and DOC staff. Despite a productive track record, funding sources have not always been historically consistent.

“Since the beginning, ODF has had to evaluate its investment in South Fork. Traditionally, the camp has consistently produced more benefits than costs.”COURTESY PHOTOS: OREGON DEPARTMENT OF FORESTRY - The South Fork inmate camp uses more than 170 inmates to provide cost-effective labor for projects in state forests across Oregon.

But declining timber sale revenue — which funds camp operations — poses challenges to long-term viability.

“We’re evaluating cost savings and ensuring that the crews are engaged in the highest and most valuable project work. Ultimately, an ideal situation would involve diversifying camp funding sources for a durable, long-term solution,” Seable said.

In 2015, South Fork crews responded to 27 fires in northwest Oregon and three large fires in southwest Oregon. Crews planted 320,000 trees, managed more than 50 miles of recreational trails, and maintained dozens of campgrounds and day-use areas. The crews also support special projects such as tree seed harvesting, delivering the State Capitol holiday tree, and painting buildings at the ODF headquarters in Salem.

“Telling the story and quantifying the impact on the lives of thousands of inmates through forestry-related work is something you almost have to see for yourself. It continues to have a profound impact on my staff and I, and it’s one of the most rewarding aspects of the job.”

Inmate Rafael Rios agrees. Rios, 29, was a salesman before falling victim to drug addiction. Now he hopes to prove himself enough to earn a letter of recommendation upon his release.

“South Fork has helped me open up again. Once I had the opportunity to work for ODF, I felt more human and was able to turn off my criminal mentality,” said Rios. “I’ve been clean for three-and-a-half years and my positive social skills are back.

“I’ve had the great opportunity to learn a variety of forestry professions and work on fires. It’s my shot to finally give back.”

Tony Andersen is a public information officer for the Oregon Department of Forestry.

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