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Skinning for Science: A Bobcat Casestudy

June 16th, 2016 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

By Holli Watne, graduate student in the Institute’s 15th cohort.

On Jan 5th, 2016 the residents of the Blue House (our Marblemount property) discovered a dead bobcat in the garage.

The cause of death was unknown, but no evidence of trauma was found. The carcass was quickly moved to the biological specimens freezer in the North Cascades Institute’s lab, where it has served as a great teaching tool for hundreds of Mountain School participants this year.


Holding up a bobcat


Bobcat found under bicycles in barn.

But for an item as popular as the bobcat, the freezer is not a very sustainable solution.
It is bad for the specimen to be constantly moved in and out of the freezer. Also, it takes up a lot of space – and there’s not much to spare in the freezer.

» Continue reading Skinning for Science: A Bobcat Casestudy


LEED by Example

April 25th, 2016 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

By Sasha Savoian, part of the Institute’s 15th Graduate Cohort.

We are the North Cascades Institute. And if you are reading this blog you are somehow affiliated with or are curious about our organization devoted to environmental education. You may know us through Mountain School, Adult learning programs, Snow School, Youth Leadership Adventures, Family Getaways, Stewardship Events, Kulshan Creek Programs, our M.Ed. Graduate Program, Skagit Tours or perhaps you stumbled upon us hiking or driving Highway 20 beneath the steep contour of Sourdough Mountain. You may or may not know that our mission is to “conserve and restore Northwest environments through education.” No matter your age, we believe that place-based education in the rain drenched mossy, cascade cut forests or heather dotted, steep rocky alpine landscape makes a lasting impression. Our programs speak for themselves, but you may or not know about our sustainability efforts.

How effective is an organization that does not employ its values on a daily basis? The North Cascades Institute embodies what we believe sustains the vitality of this ecosystem and beyond. Our unique location, one hour from a grocery store and an hour and a half from a hospital, create obstacles that we are always navigating with different paddles.

But to give you a glimpse into how we operate sustainably at the base of the Cascades, let me tell you how we, this community of 50+ people, attempt to tread lightly while serving nearly 5,000 clients at 1200 feet.

Thirty years ago, Saul Weisberg and friends crafted an idea while hiking and climbing the silent, ancient peaks in the North Cascades National Park. The idea was for an educational institution which eventually led to the serendipitous construction of the Environmental Learning Center 11 years ago. The arduous details aren’t as important as the intention behind them. Change through education.



The Environmental Learning Center is LEED Silver certified by the U.S. Green Building Council based on our level of sustainability! LEED certification is awarded to buildings that are efficient, use less energy and water and create less impact on the environment both in the construction process and during operation. Our foundation is one of recycled structures upon which we expanded.

  • We respect our environment! Most of our buildings are built upon preexisting foundations for minimal impact to native vegetation and landscape, which still thrives today. Our campus is built into the landscape, working with naturally occurring barriers, slopes, and light.
  • We support local economies! Local and regional materials were used in construction of our facility.
  • We recycle! Salvaged wood was used to craft the front gate, the maple flooring in one of the classrooms and the heart pine flooring in staff housing.
  • We care about you! The woodwork inside of the buildings at the Learning Center does not contain composite wood like particle board or plywood that can contain formaldehyde in glues.
  • We used the natural landscape to our advantage in the construction of the buildings on campus. Windows are south and west facing when possible to absorb as much light as possible.

» Continue reading LEED by Example

compost2 (haag)

It’s the COMpost!: Welcome to the Black Morel

November 11th, 2013 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

During a recent celebration at the Environmental Learning Center, I noticed Saul, our Executive Director, gesturing toward the compost building from the back deck of the dining hall. Made of grey cement blocks and housing two Green Mountain Technologies Earth Tubs, a dumpster, and several recycling bins, this building is where dining hall leftovers are transformed in to nutrient-dense fertilizer as part of the North Cascades Institute’s Foodshed program. The structure is hardly architecturally or intellectually noteworthy. And it stinks. So what were the dozen or so revelers talking about, captivated by the most infamously fragrant building on campus as opposed to, say, staring west through the trees at a twilit Diablo Lake as the sun descended into the folds of the glorious Skagit Valley?

Saul explained he would like for people to start calling the structure by its rightful, well-earned moniker. “It’s named ‘The Black Morel’,” he said, with all the authority an executive director can possess when referring to his facility’s odiferous refuse.

Perhaps you, dear reader, have noticed that every building on campus has a name, all which reflect the native vegetation, save for our one fungal representative – the Black Morel. The waste management building represents an entire other biologic kingdom, one that is neither plant nor animal, deriving it’s food and energy from dead things and helping them turn back in to soil. This naming of the buildings was completely intentional. Saul said that initially, while building the campus in 2004, they were referred to by a quick and boring “Building A, B, C, etc.” But why not integrate the built environment into the living one as much as possible, and use them as teaching tools as well? Towards that end, for example, there’s Sundew, our Aquatics Lab, named after a bog-loving carnivorous plant that looks like a monster’s toothy mouth. Or consider the Wild Ginger, our cozy library, named for a plant with heart-shaped leaves that lie close to the ground, with inconspicuous, triangular maroon flowers hiding underneath, much like books, full of love and secret worlds.

The namesake fungi: the Black Morel (Morchella elata). Photo by Lee Whitford.


signWhere the loop gets closed. Photo by author.

I vaguely recalled noticing the carved wooden sign announcing the building’s given name. I still referred to it, though, as most of the staff did, as “the compost.” That was how it announced itself, olfactorily, whenever one ventured near that edge of campus.

But Saul was right. Though the office (a.k.a “Twinflower”) is where all of our programs get organized, and our trails are where about 2,500 Mountain School students every year get connected to this North Cascades ecosystem, the Black Morel may be the most important place at the Environmental Learning Center. It’s where the loop is closed, where the cycle of matter and nutrients works perfectly, rather than getting ignored and abused in the typical “trash” to landfill scenario. According to our chef, Shelby Slater, all of our food waste is composted, and 75 percent of the total waste from the kitchen ends up here (of the other quarter, 15 percent gets recycled, and only ten percent is destined for slow death in the landfill).

There’s the “foodshed” cycle, too: Blue Heron Farm in Rockport and Acme’s Osprey Hill Farm provide much of the food that gets prepared and served at our dining hall. The carrot tops and leftover scraps go to the Black Morel, where they are transformed into fertilizer to give back to local farms, the Angele Cupples Community Garden in Concrete, and private down-valley gardens.

blue heron anne (brondi)Anne Schwartz, of Blue Heron Farm, showing off a leafy and lovely bok choy in front of a field of organically-grown corn. Blue Heron provides much of the food served during programs at the Environmental Learning Center. Photo by Michael Brondi.

» Continue reading It’s the COMpost!: Welcome to the Black Morel

Cascades Climate Challenge: A Recipe for Love

September 4th, 2012 | Posted by in Adventures

What do you get when you mix 38 high-school students in two 20-day programs in a wildly beautiful place with early morning wake-up calls surrounded by snowcapped peaks, days of paddling over glassy water, and hiking on lush mountain trails? Answer: one life-changing summer. North Cascades Institute just wrapped up its fourth successful year of Cascades Climate Challenge. Young high-school leaders from across Washington and Oregon spent three weeks exploring the public lands of the North Cascades. The students studied the effects of climate change and what they and their communities can do to help, learned about the climate science behind those changes, experienced the natural history that makes the North Cascades such a unique place, learned the important role of public lands while practicing stewardship on them, and grew personally as leaders and public speakers.

As students reminisced about their life-changing summer over hugs and tearful goodbyes during the closing ceremony on the final day, lead instructor Justin McWethy touched on what makes this experience so special: love. Beyond the curriculum, the countless hours spent making this program such a success, and the weeks spent exploring and learning about the North Cascades ecosystem, we hope students leave with a deep love for themselves, for their communities, and for this planet. Students leave with new eyes, new knowledge, and a better understanding of how important love and compassion is to this world and the powerful position they are in to effect change. In Cascades Climate Challenge students realize they must be the change they want to see in the world.

Session 2 students hike through wildflowers along Hidden Lake Trail.

Love for each other

For many of the students, Cascades Climate Challenge brings many first experiences: longest time away from home, first time backpacking, paddling a canoe, and camping with a group of strangers in the wilderness. At first these experiences are intimidating and the initial couple days of their 11-day backcountry experience are spent getting accustomed to life in the wilderness. However, the students inevitably form a strong community as they listen to each other’s life stories, and begin developing lasting friendships as they work a cohesive and unified team. During this backcountry time students learn climate science, invaluable leadership and public speaking skills, how to give and receive feedback, and how to powerfully share their personal stories. As the days go on, students begin to take accountability for the group, or better yet, the team. They push each other to give 100% to the experience. Students actively reflect on Margaret Mead’s famous statement: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has,” and how it relates to their group. Supported by a dynamic team of instructors, they experience firsthand how important a thoughtful and committed group is to a community, and to realizing change in those places.

» Continue reading Cascades Climate Challenge: A Recipe for Love

Edible Geography: Perspectives and Practice in Foodshed Education

May 4th, 2012 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

With an Introduction Recounting Current Happenings in the Foodshed Project

[We are excited to publish the fifth piece in our Foodshed series, with monthly updates from the amazing chefs working hard to provide program participants and staff at the Environmental Learning Center with sustainable, seasonal, and deliciously fresh food. In an age where the production and consumption of food are heavily disconnected, North Cascades Institute works hard to preserve those ties by considering how food flows from the farms to our tables and all the processes in between. Purchasing from local farmers allows us to draw connections between their livelihoods and our own while at the same time contributing to our mission to conserve Northwest environments through education. It’s a renewing and rewarding partnership, and one we are committed to sustaining and growing. Learn more about our Foodshed Initiative.]

Summer is peeking around the corner at the Environmental Learning Center. We’re beginning to see some fresh local products coming through the door, including radishes and fresh spring greens from Blue Heron Farm. We received our first cooler full of pasture-raised chickens from Osprey Hill Farm two weeks ago, and there has been the comforting sight and smell of stock simmering on the stovetop on several occasions since.

Last weekend we hosted Molly Hashimoto’s Printmaking and Watercolor class and what a lovely crowd. It’s fun to share what we do with artists because they appreciate so much attention to detail. The only difference is that their work is going to last a lot longer than the Evergreen Sorbet we made for desert.

Chris Kiser, a graduate student who participated in the printmaking workshop, even made us a bit of food-inspired eye candy for the salad bar (a carrot).

This week we continued treating the Mountain Schoolers to our best efforts, as well as sponsoring a luncheon for the Chamber of Commerce in Sedro-Woolley on Wednesday. We served pasture-raised chicken and Tillamook smoked cheddar crepes with a Washington apple glaze, grass-fed Swedish meatballs and gnocchi with garlic-cream sauce, local grilled asparagus and some of those greens and radishes from Blue Heron Farm with nettle & honey vinaigrette. We received a warm greeting and more than a few compliments from the local business owners in Sedro-Woolley. A good day!

North Cascades Institute staff members Jessica, Codi, Mike, Amy, Shelby, and Jason livin’ it up in Sedro-Woolley!

In terms of our Foodshed, the chefs estimated that about seventy to eighty percent of the ingredients were local, and that’s pretty good work. Cutting, pulling, rendering fat, and making stock from twelve whole birds is definitely not like throwing some boneless, skinless chicken breasts on the grill. But that is the work we do here and we enjoy it.

So after loading up 700 pounds of organic flour and chatting with Kevin Christenson at Fairhaven Mills in Burlington, we headed back to the Environmental Learning Center to find chef Rusty serving up some yummy stir-fry for the Mountain School crowd.

» Continue reading Edible Geography: Perspectives and Practice in Foodshed Education