Photo by Elle Gasperini

High school students reflect on climate change and their futures in the North Cascades

For the Youth Leadership Adventures (YLA) program, a normal summer looks like bringing  around 80 local high school students on a backcountry adventure that is anything but normal. Participants stretch their boundaries on courses that go into the backcountry of North Cascades National Park and Okanogan-Wenatchee and Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forests on 8- and 12-day courses focused on stewardship, ecological literacy, science and leadership skills.

With the goal of inspiring a lifelong conservation ethic in the next generation of leaders, YLA is a progression of learning experiences designed to serve local teens from counties that surround the North Cascades. The Institute has a keen interest in especially reaching people of color, LGTBQ youth and low income students– in 2018, 72% of participants identified as coming from low-income families, 63% identified as people of color and 10 different languages were represented.

What’s more, for over half of the students, it was their first visit to North Cascades National Park while 77% said it was their first time participating in an outdoor program!

But 2020 was, of course, not a normal year, and the COVID-19 crisis forced Institute staff to quickly scrap their plans and pivot to creating a new model. Their challenge was how to continue to connect young people to wild places — developing in them a sense of place, feelings of community, and values of civic action to care for public lands — in a safe, socially-distanced way.

“It was definitely disappointing to have to cancel our backcountry trips this year,” reflects Julie Stone, the Institute’s Youth Leadership Manager, “but we never doubted that we would find some new creative ways to work with high school students and keep the program going. We looked at the pandemic as an opportunity to do things we typically wouldn’t be able to do in the backcountry instead of being a limitation. So many students were just cooped up inside all summer and we live in a wonderful corner of the world, so we started asking ourselves how we could apply our program themes to help students explore the outdoor spaces near them”   

Institute staff quickly came up with a modified version of YLA, recruiting small cohorts of local students and providing them with a combination of self-guided, at-home activities, social media prompts and a culminating in-person adventure day of sea kayaking.

“The snowfields and glaciers of the North Cascades melt and send fresh water down the Skagit and Nooksack Rivers, which feed the Salish Sea where we were kayaking with the kids,” explains Stone, “so that was a cool connecting thread between these different iterations of YLA.”

Climate science is a central theme of the program, and the North Cascades ecosystem is the ideal classroom for learning about our changing climate. Shaped by multiple ice ages, “the North Cascades are a composite of millions of years of glaciations,” according to NPS geologist Jon Reidel. The icy legacy of this history is that the North Cascades are the most glaciated region in the lower 48 states, holding over 300 glaciers.

“Glaciers are dramatic indicators of climate change,” explains Riedel. “They are sensitive to temperature because that is what determines what form of precipitation falls—snow versus rain— as well as the length and magnitude of the melt season.”

For example, the one degree Celsius increase in temperatures over the last century has melted half of the glacial area in the North Cascades.

Learning about the science behind the climate crisis and the specific impacts our warming atmosphere is having on local resources — agriculture, municipal water supplies, industry, hydropower and a wide range of species including pikas, wolverines, salmon, even orca whales — helps make an abstract issue real for these high school students. It informs them, and then empowers them to think about solutions for the future.

Photo by Elle Gasperini

As part of this summer’s version of YLA, the instructors interviewed each participant about the climate crisis.

“We wanted to listen to the thoughts that young people have on this big problem,” said Elle Gasperini, the Youth Leadership Coordinator, “a problem that is already here and is yet to be solved.”

Those interviews have been edited down into a half-hour podcast that the Institute just posted to their Youtube channel. Called “Normalizing Climate Change Conversations and Envisioning a Future of Hope,” the podcast shares the hopes and fears of a generation of young people who will be living through the impacts wrought by our warming planet.

“This is a time of great change in so many ways, from being an election year to pandemic to forest fires and smoke to social tension and unrest — it feels like we are rolling from one crisis to the next,” reflected Stone. “This podcast gave students an opportunity to take a deep breath and reflect on their feelings surrounding climate change, a challenge that in many ways defines their generation.”

North Cascades Institute is planning on resuming YLA backcountry sessions in 2021, with the application period for high school students opening in late February-March. To stay informed of YLA and North Cascades Institute other programs for people of all ages, join our mailing list at


  1. Jodi Broughton

    The adaptations to YLA were one of many that the Institute was able to make in 2020 thanks to the generous support hundreds of donors. Please join me in making a gift to power programs that inspire environmental stewardship and give hope for generations to come.

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