Jail inmates pitch in to help Tahoe forest
The choice is simple, say El Dorado County jail inmates who have volunteered to help Tahoe Re-Green’s campaign to remove dead and dying trees from Tahoe Basin forests.
“We have a chance to get outdoors and work, and get our self-esteem back from being incarcerated,” said Brad Paganini of South Lake Tahoe, who had served more than five months for a probation violation before joining the work detail. “It gives us a chance to do something worthwhile instead of sitting and doing nothing.”
Paganini was part of a four-man work crew working on a steep ridge above Rubicon Bay Thursday, one of two crews at the site being supervised by the California Division of Forestry and Fire Protection.
The CDF program to reduce the fire hazard on publicly owned lots in the Tahoe Basin was made possible by a $130,000 grant from the California Energy Commission. The grant paid for the hiring of two foresters, who mark the trees to be removed, two retired fire crew chiefs and a biomass expert.
“We could put 10 crews to work if we had the money,” said George Osborne, the CDF unit chief for the El Dorado-Amador Ranger Unit who launched the program.
Begun in mid-June, the program has proven successful for both the misdemeanor inmates who supply the labor, to the public agencies that have benefited from their efforts, Osborne said.
“They are doing highly important work that is expensive to do,” Osborne said, comparing the crews’ accomplishments to the work of the state-run California Conservation Corps. “This is all part of the Tahoe Re-Green effort, using every possible resource we can garner to make the program work.”
On the steep hillside, the members of one crew, to a man, said they welcomed the chance to work hard outdoors, rather than serving out their sentences in the South Lake Tahoe jail. Selected by sheriff’s jail supervisor Charles Poe, many were picked because they showed the responsibility needed for a stable job.
“Working here is better than sitting in the pod looking at four white walls,” said George Bebik, a 15-year South Shore resident who had served nine months in jail for a drug conviction. “It’s also good to get experience working with other people and get some working skills.”
Joe San Martin, who’s lived in South Lake Tahoe since 1972, is scheduled to be released on Oct. 3 after being convicted of driving under the influence. He called the work program fantastic.
“It’s good, hard work, and good preparation for getting out,” San Martin said. “Out here you don’t have that lazy attitude. It’s refreshing. It’s really an excellent program.”
The fourth member of the crew is Rafael Corea, who has lived in South Lake Tahoe for 17 years, after emigrating to the United States from El Salvador with his 11 brothers and sisters, all of whom also live at Lake Tahoe.
“I like the program,” said Corea, who had worked his way up to a trustee’s position in jail, putting in time in the jail kitchen. Corea was serving a jail term stemming from a domestic dispute. He said the forestry project reminded him of some of his work in El Salvador.
John Loop, a former CDF crew chief called out of retirement to participate in the Tahoe Re-Green project, said the crews have been creating defensible corridors on lots owned by the California Tahoe Conservancy.
But the significance of the pilot program goes far beyond the immediate results, Loop said.
“We’re motivating them and instilling a work ethic,” said Loop, who during his 40 years in forestry worked at state prison forestry camps for 30 years. “Our work is the men themselves.”
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