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.
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 included the Upper Skagit, Swinomish, Sauk-Suiattle and Nlakapamuk.
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. 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 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. Seattle City Light, a public utility, manages the dams today and they provide more than 25 percent of Seattle’s electricity.
Although the first petition to protect the North Cascades was submitted in 1892, it wasn’t until 1968 that the North Cascades Conservation Council succeeded in engaging broad public support to establish the North Cascades National Park Service Complex, protecting more than 504,700 acres. The North Cascades Highway opened in 1972. In 1988, 93% of North Cascades National Park was granted further protections as the Stephen Mather Wilderness.
In 1989, North Cascades Institute proposed education as mitigation for the federal relicensing for the Skagit Hydroelectric Project. In 1991 the City of Seattle formed a unique partnership with North Cascades Institute and the National Park Service to construct the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center. The idea was supported by North Cascades Conservation Council, local tribes, US 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. 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 and land and resource management. Reflecting best practices in field-based environmental education, North Cascades Institute operates, outfits and maintains the facility and offers programs for people of all ages.
This collaborative approach to education and stewardship, from three unlikely partners — a federal agency, a public utility and a nonprofit conservation organization — serves as an inspiring model for future generations.