South Fork Forest Camp’s Main Benefit is Hope – But Firefighting, Forestry Projects, and Raising Fish Help All Oregonians

TILLAMOOK STATE FOREST, Ore.—More than 46,000 steelhead trout gush out of the rearing pond and into Tuffy Creek at South Fork Forest Camp on an unusual snowy day in April. After being confined to the pond for seven months, the three-to-five-inch fish now face a challenging journey — much like the people who raised them.

“This camp is the only one of its kind in Oregon,” said Dave Luttrell, South Fork camp manager. “We are a minimum-security facility run jointly by the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) and the Department of Corrections (DOC)—we house up to 200 adults in custody.” 

The camp provides training to the adults in custody (AICs) in several vocational areas. “Our focus is on all things forestry,” Luttrell said. “Fighting fires, building trails, planting seedlings, small construction projects at state campgrounds, and even the fish-rearing pond – and we provide folks the skills needed to support those activities.”

The AICs that come to the camp for an assignment come from other Oregon Department of Corrections facilities around the state. The selection process includes a thorough review and screening for appropriate placement and being within four-years of release.

“These AICs are motivated, want to learn some relevant skills, and are looking forward to life after the camp,” said Luttrell. “For firefighting skill development, we offer four days of intensive training to fight wildland fires—it is the same training given to other ODF crews around the state. We also have woodworking, metal fabrication, vehicle maintenance, sewing, tool maintenance shops, and more.”  

But more important than the skill building is how the environment and purpose-driven work at South Fork can change the outlook of many AICs.

“I’ve met many of these folks sometimes years later, often unexpectedly, out in the community who have told me the super positive impact the camp had on them. Most of them tell me they are doing great now, and that the people at the camp gave them something they never had — hope,” said Luttrell, who has had non-consecutive assignments at the camp since the mid-1990s.

That hope is what propels many of the AICs at the camp.

“I know for sure I never want to be in the prison system again,” said Mike, an AIC who mostly works full-time at the fishpond and oversees the day-to-day needs of the fish. A few other men help Mike drain the pond and sweep out leftover food and fish waste. They also replace protective netting each day to keep out kingfishers and other predatory birds.

“This place really helps me get ready to go back to my family and gives me some practical skills to hopefully find a good job with,” said one AIC who didn’t want to give his name. He mainly came for the firefighting training but helps at the pond, too.

Mike and his coworkers also net and measure the fish, keep track of fish food requirements, and send the data weekly to Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife experts at the Trask Hatchery about 30-miles downstream from South Fork Forest Camp.

“There is no way we could run this place without them,” said Dustin Manwaring, interim ODFW hatchery manager at Trask. “This is a time intensive, seven-day-a-week operation – so the camp guys make it work.”

Manwaring and his coworker John Martin were at the pond to supervise and gather final data on the release of the fish. They corralled the fish while walking down the pond in chest waders with a huge net.  Once near the spillover, Mike and another AIC scooped up the fish in a smaller net and put them in a bucket to be weighed and measured.

Manwaring and Martin measure and record the length for 300 of the small steelhead trout on a low-tech measurement board – their hands covered in fish slime and turning bright red from the cold water and falling sticky snow. They will then take the sheets back to the hatchery and finish compiling all the data on this stock of steelhead.

The rearing pond operates nearly year-round. Next up are 65,000 spring Chinook salmon that will spend about four months in the pond.

“Since 2018, more than 200,000 steelhead have been released from this pond,” said Manwaring. “All combined, we’ve released more than 3.5 million AIC-raised spring Chinook and various stocks of steelhead since 1989 from the facility.”

The pond is gravity fed from a small dam about a quarter mile upstream, so it has a continuous flow of water. “That helps keep water temperatures optimal and fish disease risks down,” said Manwaring.

Even though the steelhead were bred in captivity and fed by humans while in the rearing pond, they adapt quickly once in the creek, learning to eat their natural foods and survive. Eventually, they go in the Wilson River and then into the Pacific Ocean. In much the same way, the AICs are preparing for a difficult journey integrating back into society after years in the correctional system. However, for both, that move is made easier by their time at the camp.

“This place gave me my work ethic back,” said Mike. Even though he enjoys working with the fish, he plans to “go back to my original job as a union drywall plasterer.”

The camp has proved to be a win-win for the state and the AICs.

“Even though we calculate the camp provides between $4-$6 million in services and goods back to the state each year, the real value of this place is in helping people,” Luttrell said. “Helping them get job skills, life skills, and positive outlook to not just survive back in society, but thrive and become key members of the community again: What is the value of that?”

Did you know?

 South Fork Forest Camp:

  • Has a cold storage facility which can hold more than one million tree seedlings for transplanting
  • Employs 37 staff members from the Department of Corrections and 20 from the Department of Forestry
  • Adults in custody make most of the wooden signs in all the State Forests Division’s forests and campgrounds
  • Provides more than $4-$6 million worth of services and goods
  • Trains and can send out 15 wildland firefighting crews of 10-men each during fire season
  • Is helping renovate the Tillamook County Courthouse by making a new witness stand and jury box
  • Raises a combination of more than 110,000 steelhead trout and Chinook salmon each year in its rearing pond
  • Was founded in 1951 to help reforest after the Tillamook Burn