North Cascades Institute turns 30

June 29, 2016

Education and Adventure in the Wild

By Christian Martin

Photo at right: North Cascades Institute’s 12-person Voyageur canoe explores the nooks and crannies of Diablo Lake from its home base at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center in the national park. Photo courtesy North Cascades Institute


When Saul Weisberg and his climbing buddy Tom Fleischner created a conservation nonprofit in the mid-1980s, they consulted the I Ching for advice.

They were wondering how to make a livelihood from the things that they valued most: exploring the North Cascades, studying the region’s natural history and working toward conservation of its wild beauty. The ancient Chinese oracle gave them a two-word reply: “Perseverance Furthers.”

Reflecting upon his 30 years of tenure as the Executive Director of the North Cascades Institute, alongside his work as a ranger, author, naturalist and educator, Weisberg realizes that the forecast was right on the mark.

“We didn’t know what the heck that meant at the time,” Weisberg recalls, “but we do now: stay the course!”

Conversing around campfires all those years ago, Weisberg and his friends — rangers, climbers and biologists — hatched a plan. They founded North Cascades Institute in 1986 with the goals of sharing the natural wonders of the North Cascades with others and using education as a tool for protecting this place they loved.

They were encouraged in the beginning by North Cascades National Park Superintendent John Reynolds and Wilderness District Ranger Bill Lester. The National Park remains a key partner in the Institute’s mission to “conserve and restore Northwest environments through education.”

Thirty years of “staying the course” has paid off.

Today, in the middle of the 13-million acre ecosystem (7 million acres of which are protected as public lands on both sides of the international border), the Institute operates the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center, a campus on the shores of Diablo Lake.

The Institute also offers dozens of classes and field excursions to the public, exploring ecology, art, writing and recreation, family getaways, conferences and retreats, walking tours and boat tours on Diablo Lake.

“Our work is getting people outdoors learning and exploring in small groups,” explains Weisberg. “It’s our belief that having firsthand experiences in the wild whether it is canoeing, birding, doing watercolors, hiking or writing poetry — will lead to a profound connection to place.

“And from the connection grows care, and a desire to look after these precious places the Pacific Northwest is so abundant in.”

Key to the Institute’s success has been deepening its impact and reach by working with many different partners: the National Park Service, US Forest Service, Seattle City Light, Skagit Environmental Endowment Commission and Western Washington University, to name a few.

The Institute also recently received crucial support by way of Washington State’s “Leave No Child Inside” initiative, being one of 19 organizations across the state awarded funding to connect at-risk youth with outdoor education and recreation experiences.

While the founding of North Cascades Institute 30 years ago and its impressive evolution is cause to pause for congratulations, Weisberg is already thinking ahead to the future.

“In the beginning, sitting around those campfires, we joked that the mission of North Cascades Institute was to save the world,” says Weisberg. “Well, now I’m serious. If you’re going to have a mission, it’s got to inspire you. What’s next?”

Christian Martin is the communications coordinator for North Cascades Institute and contributing author to The North Cascades: Finding Beauty and Renewal in the Wild Nearby, published in 2014 by The Mountaineers Books.