At least 9,000 years ago, as the Cordilleran Ice Sheet retreated, indigenous Northwest peoples began to visit the Upper Skagit Valley and surrounding mountains. Evidence of hunting, gathering, drying salmon and quarrying can be found in more than 160 pre-contact archeological sites recorded in the upper Skagit. Tribes include the Upper Skagit, Swinomish, Sauk-Suiattle and Nlaka’pamuk.

The first European explorers arrived in the mid-1800s, followed by prospectors, loggers and homesteaders. In the 1920s, the City of Seattle tapped the Skagit River for power, and the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project commenced building Gorge, Diablo and Ross Dams. Seattle City Light, a public utility, manages the dams today.

Although the first petition to protect North Cascades was submitted in 1892, it wasn’t until 1968 that the North Cascades Conservation Council (NCCC) succeeded in engaging broad public support to establish North Cascades National Park Service Complex, protecting more than 681,158 acres. The North Cascades Highway opened in 1972. In 1988, 94% of North Cascades National Park Service Complex was granted further protections as the Stephen Mather Wilderness.

In 1989, North Cascades Institute and NCCC proposed education as mitigation for the federal relicensing for the Skagit Hydroelectric Project. In 1991 North Cascades Institute, National Park Service and the City of Seattle formed a partnership to develop the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center.

The City of Seattle funded the majority of construction and owns the buildings. Incorporating the Learning Center into its stewardship mission, the National Park Service dedicated the land for the site and provides support services such as water, sewer, visitor protection and resource management. Reflecting best practices in field-based environmental education, North Cascades Institute designs, funds and implements programs for people of all ages and operates the Learning Center.

This collaborative approach to education and stewardship, from three unique partners — a federal agency, a public utility and a nonprofit conservation organization — serves as an inspiring model for future generations.