North Cascades Environmental Learning Center is located in the upper Skagit River Valley, a wild and remote corner of the Lower 48. The upper watershed sits in the heart of the North Cascades ecosystem, which includes one national park, two national recreation areas, three national forests, nine wilderness areas and the Loomis State Forest in Washington, as well as seven provincial parks, one protected area and one recreation area in British Columbia. This region is the largest contiguous body of protected lands along the 4,000-mile U.S.-Canada border.
Since the first half of the twentieth century, the upper Skagit River has held three dams, owned and operated by the City of Seattle's Seattle City Light utility. Gorge, Diablo and Ross dams – and the reservoirs they impound – were included in the legislation for North Cascades National Park in 1968. The Learning Center sits on the north shore of Diablo Lake behind the middle dam in the chain that, at 389 feet, was the highest dam in the world upon completion in 1930. Above Diablo loom steep, glaciated peaks, including Sourdough Mountain where such poets as Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen and Tim McNulty stood watch as fire lookouts.
In the 1930s and 40s, the workers who built Ross Dam lived where the Learning Center stands today. J.D. Ross’s hydroelectric projects brought many tourists to the area. To increase public awareness and funding for his massive undertakings, he offered attractions like a petting zoo, exotic gardens and luxurious boat rides, as well as hearty meals in the Newhalem cookhouse. The worker housing along Diablo Lake eventually became a fishing resort, until Seattle City Light bought the buildings back in the early 1990s. Today, the Skagit River dams provide more than 25 percent of Seattle’s electricity.
In 1991, the City of Seattle reached terms for renewing Seattle City Light's federal hydroelectric license. Constructing an environmental education facility was part of the mitigation package. As a result, North Cascades Institute, the National Park Service and the City of Seattle joined together in a unique partnership supported by the North Cascades Conservation Council, Upper Skagit Tribe, Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, Sauk-Suiattle Tribe, USDA Forest Service, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction and many others.
All three partners actively participated in the design of the Learning Center. The City of Seattle funded the majority of construction ($11.6 million construction contract) and owns the buildings. Of course, the campus exists on public lands managed by North Cascades National Park. Incorporating the Learning Center in its stewardship mission, the National Park Service dedicated the land for the site and provides education support and services such as water, sewer and land/fire management.
Under terms of the agreement, North Cascades Institute outfits, maintains and operates the facility and offers Learning Center programs for all ages. Reflecting the best practices in field-based environmental education, the Learning Center vastly increases our ability to serve the public while complementing our camping and facility-based programs throughout the region.