An unfortunate irony: climate change disrupts environmental education



Nestled in a wooded valley, surrounded by rugged mountain peaks and adjacent to the turquoise glacial waters of Lake Diablo, lies the North Cascades Institute’s Environmental Learning Center.

Each fall and spring, the Learning Center hosts Mountain School, a program that takes place near residents of Whatcom and Skagit counties. This is a two-night, three-day camp in which fifth-graders learn about the local ecosystem as well as the natural and cultural history of the North Cascades.

All fifth-graders in Bellingham have the option of attending Mountain School, and it remains a fond memory for many lifelong Bellingham residents.

Adeline Pagels, 22, who attended Mountain School when she was in fifth grade at Roosevelt Elementary School in Bellingham, said, “It taught me how to live in nature for long periods of time and helped me appreciate nature more.” he said.

Pagels has fond memories of Mountain School, and she said the program helped her become involved in environmental stewardship from a young age.

students by the lake

Mountain School students sit on the shores of Diablo Lake in North Cascades National Park on the Environmental Learning Center campus during fall 2018 classes. The lake is fed by the North Cascades Glacier, which is at risk of disappearing within the next 50 years. // Photo courtesy of North Cascade Research Institute

In August, the current fifth-year students’ expectations for the fall 2023 mountain school turned into disappointment. It has been announced that all fall learning center-based programs have been canceled due to the sourdough fire that occurred after a lightning strike on July 29, 2023.

The fire started just west of the Learning Center, and the facility was evacuated on August 2nd.

“I didn’t see any flames licking the tires as I was driving down the road, but I could see smoke rising throughout the day and by the time I left it was dark and there were flames on the tires of my car. “I saw something like a light on the hillside,” said Eric Booher, program director at the North Cascades Institute.

At the end of September, staff were restricted from returning to campus, but it was determined that no buildings were damaged by the fire.

However, the long power outage created another problem. The campus will be closed until spring 2024 to resolve maintenance issues.

As a result of the closure, 1,400 fifth-graders will no longer be able to attend mountain school. Fall 2023 Mountain School students will be missing out on environmental education experiences due to environmental conditions.

students walking

Fifth grade students arrive at Fall 2017 Mountain School and walk the path to the Environmental Learning Center in the heart of North Cascades National Park. Excitement for the Fall 2023 Mountain Her School session turned to disappointment when all Fall Learning Center-based programs were canceled due to the Sourdough Fire. // Photo courtesy of North Cascade Research Institute

This is not the first time the mountain school has faced a situation like this.

In early fall 2022, smoke built up in the valley surrounding the Learning Center, forcing classes to be postponed for six consecutive weeks due to high air quality indicators.

Two weeks after night sessions resumed, NCI faced another challenge: the region’s winter snowfall.

Fall 2022 Mountain School students have been accepted into the spring 2023 program, but this change has proven to add to the burden of day-to-day work. They realized it wasn’t sustainable, Booher said.

“We saw smoke effects like this in 2022, and this year we’re seeing fires right in front of our eyes,” Booher said. “There are going to be so many different contingencies because we don’t know what nature is going to throw at us next year, but something is bound to happen.”

NCI’s education programs are not alone in facing challenges from climate change.

The Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association’s commitment to education programs has been affected year after year, said Nathan Zabel, education program manager.

Unlike NCI’s education programs, NSEA is not facing an extended closure. Still, the heat dome in summer 2021, extreme flooding in fall 2021 and annual wildfire smoke made it sometimes dangerous for participants to be outdoors, Zabel said.

NSEA offers multiple youth environmental education programs. The Student for Salmon program gives her fourth-graders in Whatcom County the chance to become river scientists investigating the health of salmon habitat in their local watersheds.

“Many students draw connections between salmon and ecosystems and learn that salmon are a keystone species essential to the vitality of our region, the areas they call home,” Zabel said. Ta. “We see a lot of these ‘aha!’ moments throughout the program.”


Environmental Learning Center staff educate students during the Fall 2021 Mountain School session about forest mushrooms adjacent to Diablo Lake in North Cascades National Park. Mountain School focuses on teaching 5th grade students about the park’s ecosystem and the environmental and cultural history of the North Cascades. // Photo courtesy of North Cascade Research Institute

Mountain School and NSEA share the values ​​of teaching children about the environment and ecosystems that surround them.

For example, the Mountain School focuses on the North Cascades Glacier, which has shrunk significantly over the past 50 years. In another 50 years, all of the park’s glaciers will be gone, Booher said.

Shrinking glaciers pose a serious threat to western Washington, especially the Skagit Valley, where many of the mountain school participants live.

Helping fifth graders understand the connection between life in Skagit and Whatcom Counties and mountains and glaciers will help them understand what will happen when 50 years from now, when those 10-year-olds are county commissioners and city planners. ” means. [and] Resource managers, this is no surprise,” Buher said. “On a very local level, we’re helping kids start preparing for the decisions they’re going to have to make.”

Environmental education programs are being held even when the Learning Center is closed. People of all ages can participate in outdoor field trips, the Youth Climate Solutions for Environment and People program, online classes, and several community events at Village Book and Paper Dreams.

NCI’s Environmental Learning Center campus and programs will reopen to the public in spring 2024.

Maria Karason

Maria Karazón (she/her) is a fifth-year student at Western University majoring in Creative Writing, minoring in Journalism News, and minoring in Film Studies. She enjoys hiking in the Cascades, live music, photography, writing short stories, and reading. Contact us at

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