A Green Education Amongst Rugged Nature

One of the nation’s “greenest” school campuses is one tucked away on a glacier-fed blue-green lake in the remote heart of the ruggedest National Park in the lower 48 states. This is the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center.

Completed in 2005 and awarded LEED Silver, the center’s sixteen buildings include classrooms, a library, four lodges for up to 92 guests, and four staff housing units.

North Cascades Environmental Learning Center

Image via North Cascades Institute

As you would expect in the Northwest, the buildings are strong on wood. A lot of it is reclaimed wood, and the rest is FSC Certified. Seeking alternative fiberboard from agricultural byproducts, the designers came up with wheatboard for wainscoting. It is made from wheat stalks and looks like masonite. All engineered fiber materials here are formaldehyde-free—requiring, in one case, getting a mill to make the first-ever plywood that combined FSC hardwood with urea-formaldehyde-free glues.

Nearly all lighting and washbasin water is controlled by either sensors or timers.

The most striking feature, to my eye, is not in the buildings but between them. Going way beyond landscaping with natives, the landscapers created an illusion that the buildings were somehow plopped down, bulldozer-free, into an intact Northwest forest.

Rotting birch trees (the “coarse woody debris” that forest ecologists swoon over) lie where they fell. Right in front of a lodge, an active squirrel midden—five or ten bushels of Douglas-fir cone scales—half-buries a retaining wall made of on-site gneiss and migmatite. The Douglas squirrels, clearly valuing the many new rock crevices as refuge from the pine martens in residence on campus, bring the cones here before breaking them up to eat the seeds.

Heaps of snow are undoubtedly a popular feature with school kids in the spring. Staff call them “roofalanches:” snow masses slide off the long channels of the roofs (recycled steel) and on the north sides of the buildings they take weeks to melt. They’re similar to larger masses that linger from real avalanches in the neighborhood.

NCELC classroom row

Image by North Cascades Institute

You might think of the center as a camp rather than a school, but it does offer a masters degree program in conjunction with Western Washington University. Its most populous program is Mountain School, which takes in entire classrooms of school kids for 3-day and longer sessions. Some other programs are more like going to an ecotourism camp or an overnight getaway, open to the public, all ages, any size group.

Spectacular Diablo Lake dominates the views. Though it’s a reservoir built for hydro power, its level is not allowed to fluctuate, and in summer it receives such a high proportion of glacial meltwater that it turns that milky blue-green color you probably thought you had to go to Canada or Alaska to see. Thanks to the deep Skagit Gorge, elevation is only 1208 feet, keeping temperatures mild enough for year-round operation.

Immediately upstream is the even larger Ross Dam and its reservoir. The center owes its existence to these dams, which together provide 25% of Seattle’s electricity. When Ross Dam required a renewed federal license in 1991, Seattle City Light agreed to build the center as mitigation for environmental harms that big dams inflict. The site had been developed in the 1930s to house workers building the dam.

Diablo Lake in front of NCELC

Image by North Cascades Institute

The ELC belongs to the city of Seattle and is operated by the nonprofit North Cascades Institute and also overseen by North Cascades National Park.

Note: In the opening sentence, “greenest” refers partly to the color provided by the forest setting. While numerous school buildings elsewhere have higher LEED ratings, few other entire campuses, if any, are LEED certified. “Ruggedest” refers to a measure of vertical relief.

Daniel Mathews writes about plants, animals, geology, and culture—most often writing in book form. (Bible form, if you listen to his fans. And now also in iPhone app form.) But he got his start in green homebuilding. Fresh out of Reed College, he went into the Oregon woods and built himself a tiny house out of timbers he cut and a cedar shakes he bucked and split all within 100 feet of the site. Fortunately he keeps up with the times, and focuses today on high-tech paths to a small carbon footprint. He lives in Portland with his wife, son, daughter, cat, dog, vegetable garden, and lots of music.

1 Comment

  • Reply June 30, 2013


    It was great to know about North Cascades Environmental Learning Center. By the way, the image are fantastic.

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