Unfortunate irony: Climate change disrupts environmental education

Nestled in a tree-covered valley, surrounded by stark mountain peaks and bordered by the turquoise glacial waters of Diablo Lake, sits the North Cascades Institute’s Environmental Learning Center

Every fall and spring, the Learning Center hosts a program held near and dear to the residents of Whatcom and Skagit counties: Mountain School. It is a two-night, three-day camp where fifth-grade students learn about local ecosystems, as well as the natural and cultural history of the North Cascades. 

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

“It helped me learn how to exist in nature for long periods of time and appreciate more things about it,” said Adelyn Pagels, 22, who went to Mountain School while in fifth grade at Roosevelt Elementary in Bellingham.

The happy memories from Mountain School have stuck with Pagels, and the program helped her get invested in environmental stewardship at a young age, she said.

Students by the lake

Mountain School students sit by Diablo Lake in the North Cascades National Park on the Environmental Learning Center’s campus during a fall 2018 session. The lake is fed by the North Cascades glaciers, which are in danger of disappearing in the next 50 years. // Photo courtesy of the North Cascades Institute

In August, current fifth-grade students’ anticipation for their fall 2023 Mountain School session turned to disappointment. It was announced that all fall Learning Center-based programs were canceled due to the Sourdough Fire, which started after lightning struck July 29, 2023. 

The fire, located just west of the Learning Center, caused the facility to be evacuated on Aug. 2. 

“We didn’t have flames licking the tires as we drove down the road or anything, but we’d seen smoke rising all day and it was getting dark enough as we were leaving that we could see flames or kind of a glow on the hillside,” said Eric Buher, the program director at North Cascades Institute. 

At the end of September, staff were granted limited access to return to the campus and found that none of the buildings had been damaged by the fire. 

However, other issues arose from the electricity being turned off for a long period of time. To fix the maintenance issues, the campus will remain closed until spring 2024.

As a result of the closure, 1,400 fifth graders will not be able to attend Mountain School. The fall 2023 Mountain School cohort will miss out on their environmental education experience due to the condition of the environment.

Students walking

Fifth graders arrive at a fall 2017 session of Mountain School and walk the path to the Environmental Learning Center, located in the heart of the North Cascades National Park. Excitement for fall 2023 Mountain School sessions turned to disappointment when all fall Learning Center-based programs were canceled due to the impacts of the Sourdough fire. // Photo courtesy of the North Cascades Institute

It is not the first time the Mountain School has faced this kind of situation.

In early fall 2022, smoke settled in the valley around the Learning Center, forcing them to postpone classes for six weeks in a row due to the high air quality index.

Two weeks after the overnight sessions returned, the NCI was met with another challenge: the region’s winter snowfall.

Fall 2022 Mountain School students were accommodated into spring 2023 programs, but the changes turned out to be a greater drain on their day-to-day operations. They realized it wasn’t sustainable, Buher said.

“In 2022 we saw these smoke impacts, and now this year we see fire right at our doorstep,” Buher said. “There has to be so many different contingencies because we aren’t sure what nature’s gonna throw at us next year, but we’re sure it will be something.”

NCI’s educational programs aren’t the only ones facing challenges due to climate change.

The Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association’s educational programming efforts have been impacted yearly, said Nathan Zabel, the education program manager.

Unlike NCI’s educational programs, NSEA’s haven’t faced any long-term closures. Still, the summer 2021 heat dome, the fall 2021 extreme flooding and yearly wildfire smoke made it unsafe for participants to be outdoors at times, Zabel said. 

NSEA offers multiple youth environmental education programs. The Students for Salmon program gives Whatcom County fourth graders the chance to become stream scientists who investigate the health of the salmon habitat in their local watershed. 

“Many students draw the connection salmon have to the ecosystem and learn that salmon are a keystone species, crucial to the vitality of our region — the region they call home,” Zabel said. “We see many of these ‘aha moments’ throughout the program.”

Mushrooms

 An Environmental Learning Center staff member educates students in a fall 2021 Mountain School session on mushrooms in the forests bordering Diablo Lake in the North Cascades National Park. Mountain School focuses on teaching fifth graders about the park’s ecosystems and the environmental and cultural history of the North Cascades. // Photo courtesy of the North Cascades Institute

Mountain School and NSEA share values around teaching children about the environment and ecosystems surrounding them. 

For instance, Mountain School looks at North Cascades glaciers, which have been shrinking significantly over the past 50 years. It’s predicted in another 50 years, all the park’s glaciers will be gone, Buher said.

The shrinking of glaciers poses significant threats to Western Washington, specifically Skagit Valley, the home of many Mountain School attendees.

Helping fifth graders understand the connection between the mountains and glaciers to their lives in Skagit and Whatcom County means that “50 years from now, when those 10-year-olds are the county commissioners, the city planners [and] the resource managers, this won’t be a surprise,” Buher said. “On a very local level, we’re helping kids to start being prepared for the decisions they’re going to have to make.”

There are environmental education programs available while the Learning Center is closed. All ages can participate in field excursions, the Youth for the Environment and People climate solutions program, online classes and several community events at Village Books and Paper Dreams. 

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


Maria Kallerson

Maria Kallerson (she/her) is a fifth-year creative writing major, journalism news-ed minor and film studies minor at Western. She enjoys hiking in the Cascades, live music, photography, writing short stories and reading. You can reach her at [email protected].