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An Open Letter to Secretary Zinke: National Parks Should be Affordable

December 19th, 2017 | Posted by in Institute News

North Cascades Institute has joined 15 organizations of great diversity and depth in Washington state to keep entrance fees to Olympic and Mount Rainier affordable and to support a better way to fix the repair needs of the national parks.

This proposal has gathered a lot of attention across the country, and almost every reaction is negative. For more backstory on the proposed changes to entry fees, you can listen to this clip from NPR’s “Takeaway” which ran recently.

Photos of Mount Rainier National Park and Olympic National Park courtesy of the National Park Service

Below is our official group letter to Secretary Ryan Zinke:

Dear Secretary Zinke,

Our organizations represent tens of thousands of outdoor and national park users in Washington state. Two national parks in Washington, Olympic and Mount Rainier, have been proposed for significant new seasonal fee increases which are of great concern to our members and supporters.

We are concerned that the fee hike 1) is too steep and would price people out of parks they own, 2) is coupled with a budget proposal that would undermine additional fee increases, and 3) would not raise revenue of the scale required to adequately address the backlog, so we urge the Administration to support the National Park Service Legacy Act.

» Continue reading An Open Letter to Secretary Zinke: National Parks Should be Affordable


Listening to Coyote

May 13th, 2016 | Posted by in Adventures

By Emily Ford, part of the Institute’s 15th Graduate Cohort.

After a rainy and dark winter, I’ve started to recognize the North Cascades as I remember them when I arrived last summer. Pyramid Mountain’s East wing is shaking off the snow, reminding me of summer as if it were an old friend. Soon again, Pyramid will be the snowless, chiseled, gray spire that taunted my stout climbing heart, and proved to me that its summit remains sacred beyond tired muscles, novice skills and terminal daylight. It is no longer capped by cornices like ice cream cone swirls that soften its thrust into the clouds. Pyramid stands out along the Diablo Lake skyline once more, and reminds me how deeply at home I have become.

Ok I got a little carried away. This blog is not about the North Cascades. In fact, I desperately needed to leave. I needed to go back to the desert, where I’ve returned to backpack and guide river trips for many years. When water has been scorned in the Northwest for being too much, the water in the desert is praised – and as Edward Abbey notes – exactly the right amount. Which is hilarious because it was 90 degrees in Seattle, but it rained every day, and even hailed, during my spring break trip in the Canyonlands.

Eating dinner in a slickrock alcove, I watched a storm approach at sunset.Chinese Teapots Wholesale Chinese Teapots Amber Spiral Bracelets
Shadows danced among the spires creating quite the dinner theater.

» Continue reading Listening to Coyote

Great Gray Owl (Strix nebulosa) hunting in winter snowfall. Ontario, Canada.

Favorite Nature Art & Photo Books of 2015

December 18th, 2015 | Posted by in Odds & Ends

I’m fortunate to get to review books for various regional publications, most often in the Cascadia Weekly. I get the privilege and pleasure of being sent many books throughout the year, usually on “nature topics,” both fiction and nonfiction, as well as poetry, art, photography and conservation issues. Here at the end of 2015, I’ve selected some of my favorite coffee table-style books that present the natural world in all of its glory!  — CM


The Living Bird: 100 Years of Listening to Nature
Photography by Gerrit Vyn (Mountaineers Books)

This handsome volume brings to life the work of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, a venerable institute that has been researching – and communicating to the public – the complex lives of birds since 1915. Leading chroniclers of the natural world contribute essays, including Barbara Kingsolver, Jared Diamond, Lyanda Lynn Haupt and Scott Weidensaul, but the real star of these pages is photographer Gerrit Vyn. His crisp images of nesting Snow Owls, dancing Greater Prairie-Chickens, migrating Sandhill Cranes, flocking Trumpeter Swans and beachcombing Sanderlings share as intimate a portrait of bird life as has ever been produced. (Top photo of Great Grey Owl by Vyn)


Mangelsen_Grizzly- - 6

Grizzly: The Bears of Greater Yellowstone
Thomas D. Mangelsen (Rizzoli)

Photographer Thomas Mangelson is renowned for his stunning photographs of the world’s wildlife and exotic locales, but for Grizzly, he focuses his lens in on a family of bears in his own backyard: Jackson Hole, Wyoming. This veritable Eden is rich with elk, moose, antelope, bison and other creatures, but the return of brown bears (and gray wolves too) is a recent phenomenon. Beginning in 2006, Mangelsen began creating a “visual journal” of the life and times of Grizzly #399, a matriarch of the Ursus arctos horribilis clans of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Because she inhabits the frontcountry around Grand Teton National Park, she was relatively visible and attracted a legion of admirers. Grizzly intimately chronicles her life and times raising three cubs, hunting elk, playing in wildflower meadows, swimming the Snake River and doing a delicate dance amongst her humans fan club. This large-format book is empathetic and moving tribute to the more-than-human world.


Pacific Valley

California’s Wild Edge: The Coast in Poetry, Prints and History
Tom Killian with Gary Snyder (Heyday Press)

Writer and woodcut artist Tom Killian conducts a multi-level exploration of California’s Pacific Coast through art, poetry, Native American stories, records of early explorers and varied contributions from writer, bioregional philosopher and Zen Buddhist Gary Snyder. Killian’s 80 stunning, colorful woodblock prints, influenced by the 19th-century Japanese technique of ukiyo-ë, say the most about these places with the fewest words. San Francisco Bay, Pt. Reyes, Bolinas Ridge, Monterey Bay, Pt. Sur, Tomales Bay and other scenic waypoints along the ragged California coast are exquisitely rendered. His carvings blend the accuracy of natural history with the impressionistic imagination of an artist. Striking a fine balance between romantic and representational, his artwork shares what a   landscape viewed through the lens of respect and love looks like.


Soul of Wilderness: Mountain Journeys in Western BC and Alaska
John Baldwin & Linda Bily (Harbour Publishing)

» Continue reading Favorite Nature Art & Photo Books of 2015

Seattle Times cover

North Cascades Institute in The Seattle Times: “Mountain School makes the magic of the wilderness real for kids”

August 17th, 2015 | Posted by in Institute News

We are thrilled with The Seattle Times‘ story on Mountain School, the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center and the Institute’s 30 years of environmental education in the North Cascades. It appeared as the cover story in the Times‘ Pacific Northwest Magazine on August 9, 2015 and features a wealth of amazing photos, many quotes from MS students and teachers and an interview with our founder and executive director Saul Weisberg.


“DO NOT LET the sly grin fool you. Nika Meyers is not joking around.

Out here amid the firs and ferns and tiny birds and devil’s club above Diablo Lake, she makes certain things clear to her young charges. Today’s lesson on getting in touch with the earth? It’s not some cute metaphor. It is exactly that: On your knees, boys and girls. Right down there with the spiders and rotting leaves and — Holy Crap! Is that a centipede?
This is how it’s done at Mountain School: One pair of happy, grubby, fifth-grade paws at a time. Multiply by 2,800 kids from 53 schools this year alone, stir, and enjoy.

The concept behind the school, run by nonprofit North Cascades Institute, sounds simple: In a three-day mountain camp experience, imbue in school children a visceral connection with this special place — the thumping, mountainous heart of Northwest wilderness. Make its magic real to them at a micro level, in the hope that some of them will feel the pull to return as powerfully as a salmon headed home to spawn. Slip into their consciousness rudimentary skills of a naturalist — the ability to observe and make the same personal connections to other wild lands.

Oh: Also do this without boring the amped-up, digitally dependent kids out of their skulls.

Mountain School still represents what Saul Weisberg espoused from the beginning: A chance for Northwest kids to get out in nature — many of them spending nights away from home for the first time — and go home with mountain air embedded in their hearts. While the Institute’s unofficial mission has always been to “save the world,” it’s official task is to put people and nature together and stand back in awe watching what happens. It can’t happen without the dirty hands.”


Read Ron Judd’s excellent story on our Mountain School program at!

And watch a 4-minute video by Steve Ringman at!


Democracy in Action: Denied Mountain Schoolers Make Their Voices Heard

October 11th, 2013 | Posted by in Institute News

“Dear President,

Please stop the government shutdown by Sunday. I am dying to go to Mountain School and it is being canceled. I am writing to you on the worst day of my life. You are ruining the lives of every single fifth grader in Wade King Elementary and if you care about kids then STOP THE GOVERNMENT SHUT DOWN!!! You can easily settle a budget but this may be the only time I’ll ever go to Mountain School.”

So read the text of a letter sent earlier this week by the fifth grade classrooms at Bellingham’s Wade King Elementary School to our nation’s capitol.

Two weeks ago, the U.S. government shut down because of dysfunction in Congress. Among the many negative impacts of this shutdown has been the closure of our treasured national parks, which has meant blocked access to monuments in Washington DC, cancelled vacations to popular destinations like Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon and Yosemite, massive loss of income for gateway communities and the suspension of fall educational programs inside the parks.

Many of  North Cascades Institute’s programs, because they occur inside North Cascades National Park, have been cancelled, including Mountain School, our keystone environmental education program for young students.

As The Bellingham Herald reported on Sunday, October 6:

Mountain School is a popular environmental education program offered by North Cascades Institute in cooperation with North Cascades National Park. Students learn about ecosystems, geology and natural and cultural history of the mountains.

Wade King students are set to go the first part of the week, and Columbia students the second part.

If the shutdown drags on into mid-October, students at Northern Heights and Happy Valley elementaries will be unable to attend.

North Cascades Institute also has had to cancel its adult programs at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center in the park. It is losing thousands of dollars, representatives said, but the impact on kids who look forward to going to Mountain School but might not be able to do is of concern.

“That’s the one that hurts the most,” Jeff Giesen, associate director for the nonprofit North Cascades Institute, said.


Right now, the decision on whether North Cascades Institute will be allowed to welcome 5th graders to Mountain School—many of whom have been scheduled and preparing for this singular experience for over a year in advance—is based on a day-by-day process.

The trickle-down effect is radiating outward like ripples across the green waters of Diablo Lake. Nate Cornelsen, a fifth grade teacher at Wade King, emailed Chattermarks a list of almost a dozen ways the shutdown has affected his students, classroom and school community, including:

  • Buses were scheduled and had to be cancelled.
  • Approved chaperones took time off work or planned to use vacation time to join us and may not be able to do so again.
  • Hours of teacher prep work to create new learning experiences for students.
  • Connections to the current Inquiry Unit that now cannot be made with Mountain School and will need to be altered.
  • Collaborative teacher prep time for additional activities or field trips to “replace” this experience so students can gain the required knowledge of the “Environments” section of the Inquiry Unit.
  • Building budget dollars used to support teaching and learning now have to be re-purposed for new busing.
  • Many parents are now collaborating to create additional shared experiences outside of the school day for all of the students.
  • Countless communications spent answering questions, keeping families and students informed of changing events, and between staff members about the fluid situation.
  • The challenging home and classroom atmosphere: Trying to console and reassure students that everything will be okay and we “might” be able to participate in a trip they have been counting on for six years!

The teachers are finding ways to turn the disappointment in to a learning experience for the students by having them write down their feelings and opinions in letters to the officials elected to lead. Though probably not nearly as interesting as tromping the trails at Mountain School, the shut down still offered a “teachable moment” for students, who researched the reasons why the government was closing the national parks.



While students downvalley write letters in protest, staff at the Learning Center are writing their own letters, working on improving Mountain School curriculum and trying to re-schedule the impacted schools so that, ultimately, no child is left behind.If you were a national leader, how would you respond to disheartened fifth graders who’ve been looking forward to going to Mountain School for years? Have an opinion? Follow the example of Bellinghamstudents and contact your representatives!

Top photos of Mountain School students by Rick Allen.

Katherine Renz is a graduate student in North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed. program. She is looking forward getting back on the trails with Mountain Schoolers, hopefully sooner than later.


Latitudinal and Longitudinal Explorations of Natural History

January 25th, 2012 | Posted by in Field Excursions

As much as we love North Cascadian landscapes, we here at the Institute are still called to visit and experience other amazing places on our planet. We publish accounts of the places Institute staff and graduate students visit in our Road Trip series.

As graduate students immersed in developing a sense of place within the rich, rugged landscapes of the North Cascades, we spend a lot of time attending to, and exploring, the natural world outside our doorsteps. At the Environmental Learning Center, our academic studies of the history, culture, ecology, art, and conservation of this place are integrated with actual feet-on-the-ground learning. This type of naturalizing is a practice that takes patience, and a willingness to move through our surroundings with careful observation as we slowly make sense of its many patterns and intricacies. The deeper we go in this process, the more the meaning and being of the North Cascades opens up to us. We begin to understand the stories written on and of this landscape, and our place in it.

For many of us, this practice of Natural History in all its interdisciplinary forms roots us intimately and specifically to the high mountains and steep river canyons of this region. The nature of this type of learning means that, for many graduate students, we will leave this program knowing the North Cascades better than we know our own, native homelands. How then, do we translate the tools we are learning here to other river drainages, mountains, high deserts, or valley bottoms?

In an effort to explore this question during our month-long respites from the North Cascades, Kiira and I reflected on how the practice of natural history can be used to cultivate awareness and develop a deeper sense of connection to any landscape that we move through. While Kiira’s travels took her home to the rolling hills of southern Vermont, mine took me south into the austral summer of the Patagonian Andes.

» Continue reading Latitudinal and Longitudinal Explorations of Natural History

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Spring in the Smokies

April 9th, 2011 | Posted by in Institute News

I recently had the opportunity to join Megan McGinty, North Cascades Institutes’ Climate Challenge Program Coordinator, in Great Smoky Mountains National Park for a meeting with representatives from several other environmental learning centers that will all be offering trainings this summer on how to teach climate change in the classroom. The meeting was hosted by Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont, which is located near Cades Cove in the national park. The meeting included representatives from NatureBridge’s Headlands Institute (Golden Gate Natural Recreation Area) and Santa Monica Mountains Institute (Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area), as well as from Will Steger Foundation/Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, all of which will be leading teacher trainings over the summer.

The trainings are being sponsored and supported by the National Park Foundation’s Parks Climate Challenge program. In addition to the meeting being a great opportunity for me to learn more about the trainings that will assist roughly 120 teachers in effectively teaching their students about climate change in the context of our national parks, I was also able to learn more about the different national park-based environmental education organizations and how they share their natural resources with students.   While at Tremont, we had the opportunity to observe students participating in their school program, as well as participate in a citizen-science phenology plot activity, studying where different plants are in their seasonal life-cycle.

» Continue reading Spring in the Smokies