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North Cascades Institute in The Guardian

January 27th, 2017 | Posted by in Institute News

Call of the wild: can America’s national parks survive?
America’s national parks are facing multiple threats, despite being central to the frontier nation’s sense of itself
by Lucy Rock
published January 14, 2017

Autumn in the North Cascades National Park and soggy clouds cling to the peaks of the mountains that inspired the musings of Beat poets such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg 60 years ago. Sitting on a carpet of pine needles in the forest below, protected from the rain by a canopy of vine maple leaves, is a group of 10-year-olds listening to a naturalist hoping to spark a similar love of the outdoors in a new generation.

This is one of 59 national parks which range across the United States, from the depths of the Grand Canyon in Arizona to the turrets of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. All – plus hundreds of monuments and historic sites – are run by the National Park Service (NPS), which celebrated its centenary last year. The parks were created so that America’s natural wonders would be accessible to everyone, rather than sold off to the highest bidder. Writer Wallace Stegner called them America’s best idea: “Absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”

It’s easy to agree. Nicknamed America’s Alps, Washington State’s North Cascades is an area of soaring beauty, a wilderness of fire and ice thanks to hundreds of glaciers and dense forest where trees burn in summer blazes. The Pacific Crest Trail – made famous by Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild, and the subsequent film starring Reese Witherspoon – runs through the park. Walking along Thunder Creek one midweek morning, the only sound is rushing water and birdsong. The view is a nature-layered cake of teal water, forested mountain slopes and snowy summits. But it is here that you can also observe the threats facing the parks in their next 100 years. They are fighting a war on three fronts: severe underfunding, climate change and a lack of diversity and youth among their visitors.

Jack Kerouac spent the summer of 1956 as a fire lookout atop Desolation Peak in the North Cascades surrounded by silence and rocky spires, far from the drink, drugs and distractions of his San Francisco life. He drew on his Cascades experiences in Dharma Bums, Lonesome Traveler and Desolation Angels, in which he wrote: “Those lazy afternoons, when I used to sit, or lie down, on Desolation Peak, sometimes on the alpine grass, hundreds of miles of snow-covered rock all around…” Those views look different today. Climate change is causing the glaciers to melt: their square footage shrank by 20% between 1959 and 2009.

Saul Weisberg, executive director of the North Cascades Institute, an environmental educational organization, said that the difference between photos from September – when the seasonal snow is gone – in the 1950s and today was, “Incredibly dramatic. Snow is melting back more and more and now you see a lot more rock when you look at the mountains.”

» Continue reading North Cascades Institute in The Guardian

Youth Leadership Ambassadors: A Pathway For Youth

January 6th, 2017 | Posted by in Institute News

This last August I was grateful to fill a newly created position at the North Cascades Institute, that of College Access Coordinator. The position was specifically created to support and strengthen opportunities for participants of our Youth Leadership Adventures and Mountain School programs. The AmeriCorps position is made possible by the Washington Campus Compact “College Access Corps” grant. This grant is funded by the Corporation for National and Community Service, and supports local economically disadvantaged youth to become more academically engaged in their education, increase preparedness for post-secondary education, and become more knowledgeable about the college application and financial aid process.

The grant allows selected college campuses, nonprofits (the North Cascades Institute!), or grade 4-12 educational institutions to place an AmeriCorps member (me!) to help coordinate college access programs in their local communities. While I have been graciously accepted into the closely knit Institute community, I have had the opportunity to serve on the planning committee of the Northwest Youth Leadership Summit, present a workshop at said conference (“College: Planning For What’s Next & What To Do Now), volunteer at the Migrant Youth Leadership Conference, attend multiple Kulshan Creek field trips, and participate in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) committee meetings.

While all of these opportunities stand out in my mind as highlights of my first five months in this position, getting a new program extension off the ground and running has been the most fulfilling and rewarding aspect of my work. The Youth Leadership Ambassadors program is an extension of our Youth Leadership Adventures summer program. The goal of the program is to further develop leadership and outdoor skills, facilitate service and stewardship in our local communities and ecosystems, and provide college preparedness support to high school students from Skagit and Whatcom County.

While serving as Ambassadors, students will participate in work parties, attend field trips, and receive 15 hours of college access curriculum. Our first field trip of the year is in collaboration with Skagit Land Trust to remove invasive species on Mt. Vernon’s Little Mountain. Examples of some of the other scheduled field trips include visits to local community colleges and universities, trips sponsored by National Park Service Park Rangers, and an overnight trip to our Environmental Learning Center for a stewardship weekend.

14 local Skagit and Whatcom County high school students have been selected to participate in this pilot school year opportunity. The students attend 8 different high schools including Burlington-Edison, Mount Vernon, Concrete, Mount Baker, Bellingham, Sehome, Lynden, and Meridian.

Having never previously worked with youth in an environmental education setting previously, I am looking forward to collaborating with Institute staff to help facilitate Ambassador events. Additionally, I am eager to share my background in college access work with students, many of whom aim to be the first in their family to attend college.

» Continue reading Youth Leadership Ambassadors: A Pathway For Youth

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The Confluence Garden: A Space For Growing Community

December 16th, 2016 | Posted by in Institute News

Here at the Confluence Garden we’re gearing up for winter. That means bringing in the irrigation hosing, tucking in the garlic bed with a blanket of straw, building row cover structures to protect our more tender perennials, and battening down the hoop house hatches to enable some winter planting. It also means starting to think about next spring. And, let me tell you, we’ve got some big plans for next spring! We’re hoping to ramp up production in order to supply some veggies to programs at NCI’s Environmental Learning Center, to support the summer graduate program, and to provide fresh produce to the Marblemount Food Bank. We’ll also be expanding our educational programming—working with community partners in the valley and with NCI programs to welcome more students and community members into the garden space than ever before.

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Graduate students construct a bamboo row cover for the herb garden.

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Gathering up the irrigation hoses for winter.

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The Confluence Garden hoop house.

We hope that you join us at one of our community work parties this Spring! Because this garden is more than just a space for growing food and teaching hands-on lessons about food systems, gardening practices, and plant biology. It’s first and foremost a space for growing community, for getting our hands a little dirty as we build connections between one another and the land here in the upper Skagit.

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The Blue House and Confluence Garden space in Marblemount.

Thank you for your support! Stay tuned to ChatterMarks for more about what’s happening at the Confluence Garden!

Title photo includes Rachael Grasso and Dan Dubie picking herbs during the fall harvest party at the Confluence Garden. 

Written by Alexei Desmarais, Cohort 16 Graduate Student. All photos courtesy of Angela Burlile

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2016 Northwest Leadership Youth Conference: Leaders In Action

November 20th, 2016 | Posted by in Institute News

Fun activities. Good food. Hands-on learning. Passionate discussion. A surprise visit from Sally Jewell. The newly-named Northwest Youth Leadership Summit included all of this, and more.

This conference, now in its seventh year, is for young adults in the Pacific Northwest who have participated in at least one outdoor program and want to stay involved. This year brought a new name, length, and location: 200 people – students and adults – gathered at The Mountaineers in Seattle on October 22, 2016 for a day of making connections, learning new skills, and having fun. Students arrived representing over 15 organizations and came from hometowns all over western Washington and northern Oregon.

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Students gathered in Summit Groups to discuss goals for the day. Photo by Jodi Broughton

The change from a smaller, three-day event at the Environmental Learning Center to a larger, one-day event in Seattle was a collaborative effort with The Mountaineers, the National Park Service, Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, and the North Cascades Institute to make broader connections between students in outdoor organizations across the Northwest. Hosting the summit in a more central location for a shorter time frame enabled many more students to participate.

The day was packed full with activities. After breakfast and a welcome from student emcees Thien and Logan, the students met in small Summit Groups to discuss their goals and plans for the Summit. Two Breakout Sessions – hour-long workshops on various topics– were held before lunch. Students learned basic rock climbing skills, received tips on writing resumes, and delved into complex climate issues. One student wrote, “[The supportive leader session] was the most valuable because I got to explore more formally what it means to be a servant leader. I identified myself as a servant leader, as well as found truth in my new formed opinion that a leader is not a good one unless they are a servant leader.” Another student appreciated some of the skills emphasized in the Breakout Sessions: “The resume session was the most valuable [to me] because I am beginning to think about college, so I will take any tips I can when it comes to applications and interviews.”

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Students learn the basics of rock climbing during a Breakout Session. Photo by Jodi Broughton
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Outside activities during a Breakout Session. Photo by Michael Telstad

» Continue reading 2016 Northwest Leadership Youth Conference: Leaders In Action

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Seasons In The Skagit: Fall

November 17th, 2016 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program


Fall
Hello everyone! We are moving towards the end of fall and the beginning of winter in the Skagit Valley.  The leaves are falling from the trees here at Lake Diablo. As the days march slowly towards December we see the seasons changing all around us. The sun rises later in the morning and disappears behind the mountains early in the afternoon. The maple trees are close to bare. The Skagit gorge is awash with new cascades bolstered with fall rain.

Phenology at the ELC
What is phenology? Phenology is the study of cyclic and seasonal changes in nature, especially in regards to climate, plants, and animals. At the Environmental Learning Center and the Marblemount NCI property (the Blue House) we have several phenology plots that grads and staff regularly observe.  We engage with phenology in the graduate program by conducting weekly plot checks on a weekly basis. Here are some notable changes that we have recorded in some of the plants at the ELC:

A Pacific Flowering Dogwood (Cornus nuttalli) near Sourdough Creek displayed its dramatic transition with vibrant colors.
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» Continue reading Seasons In The Skagit: Fall

ecodesignbluehouse

Ecological Design: The Blue House Project

October 30th, 2016 | Posted by in Institute News

Guest post by Faren Worthington and Oliver Osnoss. Faren and Oliver were participants of the North Cascades Institute Creative Residency program. Their residency lasted six weeks and in that time, they worked closely with the NCI community to create an ecological development plan for the Blue House property in Marblemount.

We came to NCI from Massachusetts where we both recently graduated from The Conway School, a graduate program in ecological design and planning. This creative residency was an opportunity for us to practice our craft in collaboration with an organization whose educational mission is well-aligned with our work. By working on an ecological landscape design, we learned about the region’s ecology and communities in a unique and powerful way.

There’s a housing shortage in the upper Skagit Valley where North Cascades Institute’s Environmental Learning Center is located. NCI tries to provide housing for many of their staff and students. In 2014, they purchased the Blue House in Marblemount to address the need for housing. Since then, the Blue House has been home to staff, students, a vegetable farm, and even some livestock. The 7.7-acre property is located at the confluence of Diobsud Creek and the Skagit River where it is also home to wildlife including osprey, salmon, and black bear. The confluence is a dynamic place that changes as creek and river flows fluctuate. Both people and animals are attracted to it. Strict restrictions on development throughout Skagit County (primarily the moratorium on drilling new wells or changing the use of existing wells) exacerbate the housing shortage in the area. These restrictions are driven in part by a need to conserve natural resources such as salmon habitat.

NCI is currently seeking funding to develop the Blue House property by constructing an Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) to house five additional people. They are also considering future construction of a private developed campground for temporary housing. NCI needs a plan for ecological development that is consistent with their mission. The product of our creative residency was a pair of conceptual landscape designs published in a document titled Blue House Site Designs: Conceptual Plans for Ecological Development. The document summarizes the project and is intended to serve as a tool in NCI’s decision-making process. During the project, we gave a series of presentations, facilitated community meetings, and taught an Ecological Design Workshop to share our process and invite feedback on our work. A second, unanticipated outcome of this creative residency has been a community-building process. Many participating members of the NCI community have grown more knowledgeable and engaged in stewarding the development of the property.

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NCI staff and students practiced ecological design in a workshop held at the Blue House. Photo by Joshua Porter

The project started with a goals articulation process in which we met with members of NCI’s leadership to learn about the organization’s needs and interviewed many others about their vision for the future of the property. We distilled three project goals:

  1. Provide additional housing for NCI staff and students.
  2. Create community and educational spaces.
  3. Improve farm and garden workspaces.

» Continue reading Ecological Design: The Blue House Project

Mtn School Nat Geo Oct 2016

Mountain School in National Geographic magazine

October 3rd, 2016 | Posted by in Institute News

We are thrilled to have been included in Tim Egan’s cover story for the October 2016 issue of National Geographic!

“In early fall I went to North Cascades National Park — the American Alps, chock-full of glaciers containing the frozen memories of wet winters past. A bundle of high peaks in Washington State, the park is one of the most remote places in the contiguous 48 states and also one of the least visited parks. But here, deep in the forested embrace of the upper Skagit River Valley, you can find the next two generations of Americans getting to know a national park. I heard hooting like owls and howling like wolves, coming from a circle of fifth graders and their wilderness instructors. The kids were from Birchwood Elementary in Bellingham, Washington, a school where almost half the students are nonwhite and most had never been in a national park. They were there for Mountain School, three days in outdoor immersion run by the North Cascades Institute. Their guides—staff naturalists, park rangers, graduate students—were all millennials. Without exception, the instructors thought the concern about their generation’s attachment to the land was valid, but overstated.

“It’s not like all of a sudden people are going to stop loving nature,” said Emma Ewert, who had gone to Mountain School and returned as an instructor. “But you do need the exposure, the fun of playing in the woods.” For that, perhaps, we should look to today’s parents, those afraid to let their children wander a little bit on their own.

The institute’s co-founder and executive director, Saul Weisberg, is a self-described Jewish kid from New York by way of Cleveland. He’s 62 now, wiry, with a bounce to his step. He learned to love the parks from his family, camping in a tent not unlike the one my folks used. He became a seasonal ranger at North Cascades and noticed a troubling pattern among visitors. “I don’t think I ever saw a person of color in the backcountry,” he said. He started Mountain School in 1990, partnering with the Park Service. About 3,000 students a year go through the program.

Though these kids lived only two hours or so away, this park was a strange new world for them. Many said it was the first time they’d been off the electronic leash of a family smartphone. “They have a very short attention span,” Ewert said.

At Mountain School, the instructors note changes in behavior over the few days the kids spend in the forest. They start to identify types of trees and small animals, and notice distinctions in sounds and smells. “Parents say, ‘What did you do to my child?’ ” said Carolyn Hinshaw, a teacher at Birchwood.

The parks director, Jarvis, is a big fan of Mountain School and similar programs, like Nature Bridge, which brings 30,000 students every year to a half dozen national parks. But he cautions that one visit does not a park lover make. “Something clicks, a light goes on, just by having some exposure,” he said. “I think it takes three touches for someone to change. A great first impression, but no follow-through, is not enough.” What’s needed, he said, is a broad cultural shift—a return, of sorts, to a time when outdoor exposure was a basic nutrient of American life.”

Read the rest of “Can the Selfie Generation Unplug and Get Into Parks?” at www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2016/10/unplugging-the-selfie-generation-national-parks.