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North Cascades Institute

Description: The North Cascades Institute, Sedro-Woolley, Washington, has a mission to conserve and restore the Pacific Northwest environments through education. Since 1986, the Institute has helped connect people, nature and community through science, art, literature and hands-on study of natural and cultural history.

From the tidewaters of Puget Sound to ancient forests and alpine glaciers to the sagebrush desert of the Columbia River Basin, the Institute's programs emphasize hands-on discovery and stewardship of the North Cascades-one of the wildest, most biologically diverse landscapes in North America. With an annual budget of $2 million and a full-time staff of 17, the Institute serves children and adults in school and summer youth programs and offers natural history seminars, teacher workshops, intern and stewardship volunteer training and a graduate program in environmental education. Each year the Institute's programs reach approximately 10,000 people.

The Institute was developed by a small group of friends, biologists and educators, who loved the North Cascades. Two members of this core group, Saul Weisberg and Tom Fleischner, were working as backcountry rangers and were joined by NPS staff, including John Reynolds, Margie Allen, and Bob Mierendorf. The idea was carefully nurtured and field programs began in the summer of 1986.

North Cascades Environmental Learning Center
In summer 2005, the Institute opened the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center, a cooperative project with the National Park Service and the City of Seattle. The earth-friendly, tree-sheltered campus features 16 buildings clustered on the north shore of Diablo Lake in North Cascades National Park. Facilities include: multimedia classrooms, library, aquatic and terrestrial labs, overnight lodging for 46 participants and 12 graduate students/staff, dining hall, amphitheater, outdoor learning shelters, dock and trails.

Located 134 miles (2.5 hours) northeast of Seattle, the Learning Center is surrounded by rugged, snow-capped peaks, dense forests and deep river valleys. Designed as a laboratory for instruction, exploration, research and service, the Center offers unique opportunities for teaching natural and cultural history, science, the arts and natural resource stewardship. Programs are available to all ages, individuals, groups, schools, nonprofit organizations and businesses. The Learning Center will be a hub of discovery surrounded by seven million acres of protected public lands in Washington and British Columbia. The construction contract for the Center is $11.6 million.

The Learning Center is one of the required mitigation elements for Seattle City Light's 1995 federal FERC license for continued operation of three hydroelectric reservoirs on the Skagit River. The North Cascades Institute, the National Park Service and the City of Seattle were supported by the North Cascades Conservation Council, Upper Skagit Tribe, Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, Sauk-Suiattle Tribe, USDA Forest Service, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction and many others in negotiating the details of the Center.

All three partners actively participated in the design of the Learning Center. Seattle City Light funded the majority of construction and will own the buildings. The campus exists on public lands managed by North Cascades National Park. Incorporating the Learning Center in its stewardship mission, the National Park Service dedicated the land for the site and provides education support and services such as water, sewer and land and fire management.

Under terms of the agreement, the North Cascades Institute outfits, maintains and operates the facility and offers Learning Center programs for all ages. Institute responsibilities require a financial commitment of more than $1 million per year, including an initial investment of several million dollars for startup. Reflecting best practices in field-based environmental education, the Learning Center more than doubles the Institute's capacity to serve the public, while complementing their camping and facility-based programs.

Education Programs
Core themes in all Institute programs include:

  • Convergence of natural and cultural history, science, humanities and the arts
  • Human history as integral to the history of landscapes and wild lands
  • Respect among individuals and the broader community of life
  • Exploration, reflection and stewardship in the out-of-doors
  • The Institute's Mountain School offers three-day residential programs for schools in partnership with North Cascades National Park. There are ecosystem classes for elementary school children, restoration projects for middle school students and leadership and adventure science programs for high school students. The high school program works with resource managers and conducts research in the National Park.

    Watershed Education programs are designed for upper elementary and middle school classrooms. The program uses the nearby watershed as an overarching framework for the curriculum. This provides a local focus for hands-on science, geography, social studies, art and writing. Programs include watershed geography, land uses, water quality, macroinvertebrate surveys, salmon ecology, riparian ecosystems, non-point source pollution and stream restoration.

    The Institute also offers volunteer stewardship programs for adults. Now in its twelfth year, the Eagle Watchers Program plays a vital role in protecting this species by educating the many people who are attracted to the eagles. Eagle Watchers connect with thousands of people who venture up the Skagit River to watch bald eagles soar, roost and catch chum salmon each winter. For the 2003-2004 season, the program recruited 94 adult volunteers that worked 1,836 hours.

    Entering its eighth season, River Stewards volunteers coordinate with the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest and the Skagit Fisheries Enhancement Group. Volunteers assist scientists from the U.S. Forest Service, the NPS and other local agencies in monitoring the health of the tributaries of the National Wild and Scenic River Corridor of the Skagit River watershed and assess restoration sites for Skagit Fisheries Enhancement Group. Technical review is provided by North Cascades National Park and the Washington Department of Ecology.

    Mountain Stewards is in its third year and teaches day hikers, backpackers and climbers how to travel safely while helping to protect and restore Mount Baker's most popular trails. Beginning each July, Institute environmental educators train adult volunteers in low-impact recreation skills, natural history and backcountry management issues.

    The Institute also offers a Graduate Residency Program in collaboration with Huxley College at Western Washington University. The program grants a Master of Education in environmental education and a Certificate in Nonprofit Leadership and Administration. Coursework emphasizes field science, cultural studies, teaching and nonprofit administration. The seven-quarter program begins each June with field studies in the North Cascades. After two quarters of campus-based course work, students begin a one-year residency at North Cascades Institute. During the residency students gain experience in environmental education programs for children and adults as well as nonprofit fund development, grant writing, financial planning and marketing. Twelve students are chosen to work with Institute educators and administrative staff, as well as natural resource specialists from the National Park Service. Students participate as learners in hands-on field seminars from plant and wildlife experts, geologists, archaeologists, naturalists, writers and artists.

    Geographic area covered: The North Cascades ecosystem (Washington State and British Columbia) is bounded by the Fraser River on the north, the Okanogan Highlands and Columbia Plateau on the east, Snoqualmie Pass to the south, and the Puget Sound to the west. Fifteen peaks tower over 9,000 feet while nearly 300 rise in elevation between 7,000 and 9,000 feet.

    List of partners and relationships:

    North Cascades National Park, Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, Skagit Fisheries Enhancement, Washington Department of Ecology, and Huxley College at Western Washington University. The North Cascades Environmental Learning Center is a partnership with the National Park Service and Seattle City Light. The Institute also works with the International District Housing Alliance, Power of Hope, many school districts and a wide range of community and business partners.

    Accomplishments to date:

    The Institute has been recognized for its work in environmental education by various public agencies and private entities, including:

    • Coastal America, (U.S. government agency partnership), Coastal America Partnership Award - 2004
    • Sunset Magazine, "Champions of the West" for Achievement in Environmental Education - 2003
    • REI, Great Places Award - 2001
    • U.S. Forest Service, Caring for the Land Award for Conservation Education - 1999
    • National Awards Council for Environmental Sustainability, Certificate of Achievement - 1998
    • Environmental Education Association of Washington, Organizational Excellence Award - 1997
    • National Park Service, National Wilderness Award for Wilderness Education Leadership - 1995

    Key success factors:

    1. Common goals, mutual trust and respect, openness, honesty.
    2. The Institute is viewed as a professional peer by its partners.
    3. Clarify mission, goals, and explicit outcomes.
    4. Define the niche of each partner (roles, responsibilities, audience, activity).
    5. Make explicit the differences in organizational cultures between a nonprofit business and a governmental agency.
    6. Co-location of the Institute's and the NPS administrative operations (share a building with USFS and USGS) has fostered strong personal as well as professional relationships.
    7. Agreement to house a full-time NPS Resource Educator at the Learning Center. Critical responsibilities include providing a physical link between Center operations and park staff as well as between Institute educators and research/science efforts and discoveries in the park.


    1. Just the "normal" frustrations of working together when one organization is a small, entrepreneurial nonprofit and the other a large government agency. Initially each side needed to learn and appreciate the opportunities and limitations that each partner brings to the table.
    2. Even as close as the two organizations are, it is difficult to keep up with shifting priorities, changes and staff turnover. Keeping this big picture in mind is one of the key roles of the Park Superintendent and the Institute's Executive Director.

    Most important lessons learned to date:

    1. Ask: Why are we here? What does each partner bring to the table? How will this partnership help each of us succeed?
    2. Partnerships are like a marriage: passion is good, don't accept every offer; the fewer partners the better; commit to be honest; fight fair and make up; and sustainability is in everyone's best interest.
    3. Partners must each be willing to give up control in some areas and share it in others. It is not a case of either organization calling all the shots.
    4. Partnerships are not an easy a way to do "more with less," based on the transfer of money or free labor, or an easy way to good PR.
    5. Sustainable partnerships must be FUN (at least some of the time).

    What would you do differently next time:

    Nothing. All the lessons learned along the way needed to be learned. However it's important to:

    • Formalize the relationship;
    • Take commitments and deadlines more seriously;
    • Address lack of trust issues directly;
    • Accept and learn from conflict;
    • Emphasize understanding and enthusiasm; and
    • Put yourself in each other's shoes.

    Suggested resource materials:

    • North Cascades Institute catalog and curriculum materials available at:
    • Association of Nature Center Administrators:
    • Fundraising for Social Change, Kim Klein, Chardon Press
    • Director's Guide to Best Practices, Norma J. Byrd, Association of Nature Center Administrators

    For more information:

    Name: Saul Weisberg
    Affiliation: Executive Director, North Cascades Institute
    Phone/Fax: 360-856-5700

    Name: Lee Whitford
    Affiliation: Outreach Coordinator, North Cascades Institute
    Phone/Fax: 360-856-5700 ext. 209

    Name: William Paleck
    Affiliation: Superintendent, North Cascades National Park
    Phone/Fax: 360-856-5700 ext. 350

    Partnership category(ies) (check all that apply)

    Fundraising _X_; Capital Improvement _X_; Facility Management _X_; Trails _X_; Design _X_; Program Delivery _X_; Visitor Services _X_; Tenant Organizations _X_; Concessionaires __; Natural Resources Management/Restoration _X_; Cultural Resources _X_; Education/Interpretation _X_; Arts _X_; Information Services __; Transportation __; Mutual Aid __; Fire Management __; Planning _X_; Tourism _X_; Community Relations _X_;

    Other ____________________________

    Prepared by: Lee Whitford Date posted: 11/28/05
    Phone: 360-856-5700 ext. 209

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