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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


Blue House Farm

April 18th, 2016 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

By Tyler Davis, member of the Institute’s 15th Graduate Cohort.

Spring has arrived and summer will be here before we know it. When I think about summer, I think about juicy, red tomatoes, summer squash and fresh cucumbers, picked right off the vine. This summer, we should be able to find all of those things (and more!) at North Cascades Institute’s “Blue House” in Marblemount.

North Cascades Institute has implemented a Foodshed Program that encourages the use of organic, local, sustainably sourced foods in the Environmental Learning Center Dining Hall for program participants, visitors, staff and graduate students.

In an effort to find more ways to encourage healthy food choices and to support sustainable food systems, the organization has decided to start a farm – tentatively named “Blue House Farm.” On Sunday, April 10th North Cascades Institute Staff, graduate students and neighbors all came together to build the “foundation” of the farm!

Currently, there are some graduate students from the 15th cohort and North Cascades Institute staff members working to plan and start the farm. As plans go, the Blue House Farm should be operating for production and educational use in the summer of 2017. This year we are dipping our toes in the water, so to speak. We will be planting various crops over the 2016 growing season that will be used by the upcoming graduate cohort (Cohort 16). Some will be available to staff and Cohort 15 graduate students. We also plan to donate a portion to local food banks.

» Continue reading Blue House Farm

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

Saturday, September 29 — Institute events in overdrive!

September 25th, 2012 | Posted by in Institute News

This Saturday, September 29, North Cascades Institute is either hosting or involved with not one, not two, but three special events in Seattle, the Skagit Valley and North Cascades. We invite you to join us where you see fit. Please read on for details!

Public reading of Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail at the Conway Muse, 1-3 pm, SOLD OUT!

Private dinner and reading with Cheryl Strayed at Nell Thorn restaurant in La Conner, 5 pm, $100 tickets available at or (360) 854-2599.

North Cascades Institute is excited to welcome author Cheryl Strayed to the Skagit Valley on Saturday, September 29, for two fundraisers for Institute youth programs. Strayed will read from the best-selling book Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, her powerful, blazingly honest memoir that was recently chosen as the first book in Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club 2.0.

In the afternoon, join us at the Conway Muse, a charming and eclectic venue inside a converted 1915 Scandinavian barn in the lower Skagit Valley, just minutes off of Interstate 5. Strayed will read favorite passages from Wild, answer questions and sign books. Wild, along with her new title Dear Sugar, will be available for purchase, along with lunch, beer and wine.

In the evening, you’re invited to join Strayed at a dinner engagement for a more intimate experience with this in-demand author. Nell Thorn restaurant in La Conner specializes in preparing meals in tune with the seasons, with an emphasis on delicious food, sustainable ingredients and nourishment.

Proceeds from both events will support North Cascades Wild, Mountain School and Cascades Climate Challenge, Institute programs designed to get kids outdoors in to the North Cascades for free or reduced cost. More info at


Fall 2012 Sourdough Speaker Series: “Edible Pacific Northwest” with Jill Lightner

Join us for a delicious night celebrating the tastes of the Pacific Northwest in the peak of fall harvest. Jill Ligtner, editor of the James Beard Foundation 2011 Publication of the Year Edible Seattle, has been a food writer for over a decade. She is passionate about the Pacific Northwest’s locally-sourced ingredients as well as its abundance of imported cultures.

“I want farmers to be as famous as rock stars,” Lightner says when discussing her work as editor and food writer. “Not just farmers—also fishers, food artisans, wine makers and brewers, bakers, cheese makers…you get the idea. My real mission is to promote sustainable food at all levels of our local economy: healthy farmland, rivers and oceans, lower use of fossil fuel, a living wage and safe working conditions for those in the food industry, and keeping as many dollars within the community as is feasible.”

Lightner edited the brand-new Edible Seattle: The Cookbook, a celebration of our region’s diverse, delicious and dynamic food culture. Brimming with tempting photographs, the cookbook features engage profiles of the people, places and ingredients that make our Pacific Northwest cuisine so unique, along with more than 100 recipes and valuable tips, techniques and ideas. Alongside famous culinary landmarks like the Pike Place Market, Volunteer Park Café, Le Gourmand and Theo Chocolate, Lightner profiles several of the fantastic producers from the Skagit Valley, including Bow’s Gothberg Farms, Skagit River Ranch, and Samish Bay’s Taylor Shellfish.

Our talented kitchen staff at the Learning Center, who share Lightner’s passion for local producers and sustainable agriculture, will create a special menu for this evening that utilizes the best the season has to offer. Expect fresh produce, healthful fare and exquisite tastes, as well as Lightner’s engaging stories about covering the Puget Sound’s food revolution of the past decade!

Register at or by calling (360) 854-2599.


Senator Jackson Centennial Celebration
Saturday, September 29, 2012 at Kane Hall, University of Washington

Join SCA, North Cascades Institute and the Jackson Foundation in celebrating the life and works of the late Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson and our young conservation leaders who carry on this legacy. We’re hosting a forum led by student leaders from SCA and Institute youth programs with a discussion panel that includes SCA’s founder Liz Titus Putnam. The evening will highlight the past connections, the present conservation efforts, and the goals for the future.
Senator Henry M. Jackson spent over 30 years of his life representing Washington State in the U.S. Congress. The list of Jackson’s contributions to the Pacific Northwest and our nation is long.

During his time of service, he crafted key pieces of legislation including the Wilderness Act of 1964 leading to the establishment and preservation of wilderness areas. He promoted legislation that led to the foundation of national parks, including North Cascades National Park and San Juan Island Historic Park, among others.

Jackson’s influence was not limited to the Northwest region. He ensured the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Public Lands for Parks Bill in 1969. He continued to support conservation efforts and investment in our youth when he later collaborated with fellow Washington State Senator Warren G. Magnuson to establish the Youth Conservation Corps, placing young Americans in conservation service opportunities in national parks and wilderness areas throughout the country.

Register online at

Questions? Call Shelley Green at 206-324-4649, ext. 4812

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

A Habitat for Learning

February 14th, 2012 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

[We are excited to publish the third piece in our Foodshed Series, with monthly updates from the amazing chefs working so 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, we work 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 hope to keep sustaining and growing.]

This time of year has us all thinking about comfort foods, and one of the primary comforts here at the Environmental Learning Center is bread. Every meal is a little better with some fresh bread and soft butter to accompany it. And speaking of company: The Latin roots of the word “companion” literally translate to “those with whom you share bread.” No other item lies closer to the intersection of food and culture. And here I want to briefly discuss how baking and sharing bread also connects us to our environment and to the role of education in that process.

As part of the ongoing Foodshed Project at the Environmental Learning Center, we have taken to baking as much of our own breads as possible. Using organic, locally-milled flours, we’ve managed to turn out baguettes, cottage loaves, rolls, and sandwich breads in ample numbers. Chef Shelby Slater has made this possible with a number of improvements to the kitchen, including a dedicated baking counter, two new steam-injected convection ovens, and a deep supply of high-quality, high-protein whole grain flour from Fairhaven Mills in Burlington. The results have been outstanding. The Mountain School students have loved the sandwich bread, the staff have certainly appreciated the bounty of loaves just out of the oven, and the kitchen staff have thoroughly enjoyed trying new techniques and creating beautiful products from scratch. It is a kind of empowering work that makes us proud of what we do and gives our days that extra something. It’s always gratifying to look over at the dough and see it developing into a ripe and fermented mixture ready for baking. And the feeling of pulling a dozen loaves of fresh bread from the oven is nothing short of victorious.

» Continue reading A Habitat for Learning

News from the Kitchen

November 2nd, 2011 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

[We are excited to publish the first piece in our Foodshed Series, with monthly updates from the amazing chefs working so 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, we work 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 hope to keep sustaining and growing.]

Seasonality is a major component of the Foodshed Project at the Environmental Learning Center. By the time the leaves begin to yellow and fall, our refrigerator has already undergone several transformations. Tomatoes, cilantro, peppers and summer squash have made way for apples, hardy greens and, of course, the venerable pumpkin among other winter squash. Making use of our freezer space, we’ve managed to put up a decent supply of sweet corn off the cob as well as organic blueberries from Blue Heron Farm in Rockport and strawberries from Viva Farms in Burlington. It’s a pleasure to be able to preserve these great local products in the shoulder season. With some luck we’ll save some for the dark months as well.

Sights like these are now fond memories of months past.

» Continue reading News from the Kitchen