North Cascades Institute was a dream that grew from a group of Saul Weisberg’s friends who moved to the Pacific Northwest from all over the country.
“We had this idea of a ‘natural history school’ that would take people outside to learn about and fall in love with this special place and ultimately want to protect and steward it,” he says.
Weisberg and his friend Tom Fleischner founded the organization in 1986 with support from North Cascades National Park and many individuals.
North Cascades Institute is a conservation organization focused on “transformative learning experiences in nature,” says Weisberg. It includes place-based environmental education, outdoor recreation, health and wellness, conservation, environmental justice, and community engagement.
Since its founding, the organization has helped connect people, nature and community through science, art, literature and the hands-on study of the Pacific Northwest’s natural and cultural history.
“Our primary focus is the North Cascades ecosystem of the Pacific Northwest,” Weisberg says. “Our goal is to help people of all ages experience and enjoy the mountains, rivers, forests, people, and wildlife of the Pacific Northwest—so all will care for and protect this special place.”
Weisberg retired at the end of June and handed over the reins to Bec Detrich.
Detrich was drawn to the area for two main reasons: first, because of family and friends—something that came into very clear focus during the pandemic.
“But also,” she says, “I’m fascinated, in awe of, and humbled by the epicness, beauty, complexity, and diversity of the North Cascades ecosystem. I want to learn more, explore more, and work in service of this exceptionally special place.”
Over the years, the institute has grown from offerings of adult field seminars to robust programs for all ages, including Mountain School for fifth graders, Youth Leadership Adventures for high schoolers, Base Camp and Family Getaways for all ages, and conferences and retreats for adults.
“At its heart, the institute is an entrepreneurial organization,” Weisberg says. “We believe ecosystems thrive when communities have opportunities for meaningful experiences outdoors in nature, from a neighborhood garden to a national park. We have a shared responsibility to open the doors to people of all ages, abilities and backgrounds to ensure their outdoor experiences are powerful and rewarding. When people connect with nature, our communities are strengthened, nature is protected, and we all benefit.”
As Detrich steps into the role of executive director, her experience makes her a good match.
“With two decades of outdoor education experience, I’ve been exceptionally fortunate to get to lead backpacking trips in Yosemite, take kids cross country skiing to learn about snow ecology, and explore marine science while snorkeling and kayaking with groups in Catalina,” she says.
She’s also found joy leading library programs and exploring local parks with her nephews.
“Anything that helps to connect people to the natural world and helps to inspire responsible actions to sustain it is meaningful and joyful work,” Detrich says, adding, “That might take place in the wilderness of a National Park, in the middle of a city, or anywhere in between.”
Similarly, Weisberg says he loves to teach outside.
“Rain or shine. It’s all good. I love the excitement of watching people learn new stuff,” he says. “I’ve found joy in sharing what I know about birds and bugs, alpine ecology, rivers, and poetry. The best learning is that which combines natural and cultural history, science, arts and the humanities. That’s what’s special about multiday programs outside—it draws on all that makes us human to understand and learn from the more-than-human world we depend on.”
As Weisberg leaves the organization, he says that “especially after the ravages of COVID-19, the value of nature as a place to learn, gather, grieve and heal has never been more important. Nature is a place to come together, to celebrate and learn from our differences, and dedicate ourselves to caring for this special part of the world we all call home.”
And it’s his belief that everyone—individuals, organizations, businesses, government agencies—has a role to play.
“These roles have been critically important to us in the past, and partnerships are part of the DNA of the organization,” Weisberg says. “The Institute has developed into a true ‘big tent’ that contains multitudes. We’re always looking for folks to join us, as participants, students, instructors, supporters, donors, partners.”
Dietrich agrees. Her goal is for North Cascades Institute to evolve and adapt to meet the needs of our changing environment and growing community.
“My hope is for every person in our community to connect to nature and be inspired to take action to steward our lands, water, and climate. We will continue to offer transformational programs to folks of all life stages, and I look forward to listening to and adapting to the needs of our community.”
“While doing this work we have an opportunity to more deeply promote equity and inclusion of all people and critically look at who feels included in our work as well as who has felt excluded. To help make this a reality, everyone is needed, everyone has a role to play and is invited to join us in this next chapter of North Cascades Institute.”
Enjoy the following interview with Saul from North Cascade Institute’s YouTube page, recorded at his retirement celebration on June 24, 2021.