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North Cascades Institute: Connecting People & Landscape

By Scott Stolnack

Newhalem, Washington - Seven kids from Mrs. Johnston's sixth-grade class were sprawled on a tarp at the base of a 500 year-old cedar, drawing pictures of plants and animals on wedge-shaped slices of a large round puzzle. Rugged mountains rose up all around them. A few dozen paces away in the swift-flowing Skagit river, thousands of salmon were spawning.

One kid drew a dipper-a kind of bird that 'flies' underwater in fast-flowing streams hunting insects; one drew a slug; another, a beetle. Others drew mammals, flowers, trees, fish. Then they put all the puzzle pieces together to form a map of the earth.
"What would happen if there were no more insects?" asked Paula Ogden, Education Specialist for North Cascades National Park. She took a cloth and erased the beetle from its wedge of the map.

"The birds that eat bugs would die," said one eleven year-old girl. She erased the birds.
"The flowers wouldn't get pollinated," said a boy. He wiped away the flowers.

"If the plants died," another girl volunteered, "then-then there wouldn't be any oxygen and everything would die." All the other pictures, all gone.

Mrs. Johnson's class got the message: each part is important, and we're all connected.

The kids, from Mount Vernon's Lincoln Elementary in Skagit County, were on a three-day "Mountain School" expedition, one of several educational programs of North Cascades Institute, a non-profit organization that works to deepen the connection between people and the natural world.

Imagine a classroom where the teachers are salmon, cedars, eagles, and glaciers as well as naturalists, artists, writers, and mountaineers. Where the classroom is 11 million acres of forests, shores, and mountains; and where kids and adults develop and refine a sense of intimacy with, and stewardship for, the land.

Saul Weisberg had such a dream, back in the mid-1980s. Saul, then a climbing ranger for North Cascades National Park, began North Cascades Institute with four other friends-all outdoors educators and wilderness guides. Now, more than 15 years later, trim, bearded, and bespectacled, Saul is still the organization's visionary as well as its Executive Director.

NCI is perhaps best-known for its field seminars, which are usually located in wilderness settings or rustic lodges. These adult seminars, with an average class size of around twelve, are taught by wildlife biologists, artists, geologists, writers, and other experts. Participants can study edible plants, traditional basket weaving arts, landscape photography, backpack in search of wolves or kayak in search of orca whales, learn how to write natural history essays, analyze glaciers or sketch wildlife.

Although many NCI programs take place in North Cascades National Park, and the Institute leases space in the Park headquarters, NCI is a separate, non-profit school guided by a Board of Directors and Advisory Council.

"We started off with the seminar program, and after a few years, we realized in some ways we were preaching to the choir," Saul told me from his office in Sedro-Woolley. Framed posters of butterfly wings and beetles adorn his walls. Field guides and ecology primers line his bookshelves, and an old wood-shafted ice axe serves as a temporary paperweight on the credenza behind his desk.
The people who took NCI seminars, Saul said, were already passionate about the landscape. So Saul and the rest of NCI asked themselves, "Who are we not reaching? And the obvious answer was young people."

In the camping-based Mountain School, students learn about ecosystems, cultural history, and conservation. Last year, 800 students from school districts in Skagit, Island and San Juan Counties spent two nights in tents at the Newhalem Campground in an old-growth forest along the upper Skagit. They might have thought they were just having a good time walking in the forest, writing in their journals and drawing pictures, but they were also learning about natural processes, cooperation, and biodiversity.

Another program, "Girls on Ice," teams teenage girls with female mountaineers and glaciologists for a week of wilderness backpacking and "geological research focusing on glaciers as indicators of climate change, as water reservoirs, and as erosive forces in alpine terrain," according to NCI's program catalog.

Soon, through a unique partnership with public and private groups such as the National Park Service and Seattle City Light, construction will begin on a multi-million dollar "Environmental Learning Center" on the shores of Diablo Lake in the heart of North Cascades National Park.

Funded largely from Seattle City Light's relicensing agreement for its power-generating dams on the upper Skagit-and a vigorous fundraising effort by NCI-when the environmentally friendly center opens in 2003 it will house around sixty people, and provide classrooms, a library, and a community center. It will be the base of operations for Mountain School and other NCI programs-though many of its field-based programs will still operate elsewhere throughout the North Cascades.

In another partnership, the Institute has recently teamed with Western Washington University to create a Master of Education program in natural science and science education. The objective of the two-year program is to create environmental educators and professionals who leave the program "not just knowing great natural history and teaching skills, but also knowing how to read a budget and write a grant so they can go out and be leaders," Saul Weisberg said. The program, which began last June, accepts ten students each year.
In the past decade and a half, NCI has helped 50,000 adults and children deepen their relationship to this place we call home. With an annual budget of around $1 million, and partnerships with public agencies and other groups throughout the region, NCI's brand of outdoor education seems to resonate with a great many people.

Many have encouraged NCI to expand from its home territory, and grow into other regions. But Saul feels strongly that NCI is intimately connected with the North Cascades, and should stay put. He's willing to offer plenty of advice, but he believes that an organization must be deeply rooted in its own landscape rather than transplanted from elsewhere.
"One of my dreams is that every ecosystem has an NCI in it," he said. Almost two decades after starting NCI, Saul is still dreaming. Let's hope his latest dream comes true as spectacularly as the first.

NCI can be reached at (360) 856-5700, ext. 209 or at http://www.ncascades.org

Scott Stolnack can be reached at sastol@compuserve.com.