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Treading Sustainably in Outdoor Adventuring

3p Contributor | Tuesday March 15th, 2011 | 0 Comments

This post is part of a series on sustainability in the health and wellness industry, curated by Becky Eisen, Dana Ledyard, Izabel Loinaz. Follow along with the series here.

By Karly Copeland National Outdoor Leadership School

While our formal initiative is relatively recent, environmental sustainability is not new to the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). NOLS was defining the concept of backcountry sustainability–minimum impact camping and setting the standard for sustainable backcountry travel–when we first started sending students into the Wind River Mountains in 1965. Through more than 45 years of leading wilderness expeditions in nearly every type of eco-system, we have refined and perfected the concept, learning through experience and hundreds of thousands of nights slept on the ground around the world. In the early ‘90s, in collaboration with federal land management agencies, these practices were formalized into Leave No Trace (LNT), which has become the unparalleled ethic and practice for minimum impact travel in the outdoors.

As a leadership school, walking our talk and leading by example is an important part of the culture at NOLS. In the backcountry we do this by faithfully practicing our LNT ethic with our students. In the past five years, however, NOLS has expanded this focus on sustainable practices from its backcountry roots to our frontcountry facilities and operations. While our environmentally minded faculty and staff have always pursued low impact practices for our frontcountry operations, in 2006 we formalized and centralized environmental sustainability at NOLS. We established a school-wide Sustainability Initiative, including the creation of long-term carbon reduction goals, and began to teach our students about frontcountry sustainability concepts and their practice at NOLS.

As a non-profit, we certainly have our challenges in funding capital-intensive projects such as solar arrays and extensive efficiency retrofitting. We have been lucky in receiving extensive grant funding for these types of projects. At the same time, we have completed numerous smaller scale projects that require less financial investment. We have found that while big projects are important in order to illustrate our sustainability commitment to our students, our small acts of sustainability speak even louder.

For example, a big part of teaching and learning environmental ethics at NOLS is practicing what we preach. In the backcountry, students and instructors routinely pick up trash and carry it with them for weeks in order to pack it out, or reclaim fire rings in the wilderness environment. In the frontcountry we haul buckets of food scraps to composting sites (or pigpens) and have a culture that makes reusable coffee mugs and water bottles the norm. While these small things often seem inconsequential and almost trite when compared to reducing carbon emissions, they are likely the most impactful part of the sustainability program at NOLS because they speak to a cultural norm of sustainability in which students can participate.

Reducing our environmental footprint is critical, but is really only a tiny part of our work compared to the education our students gain during their time in the wilderness. Our greatest contribution to the environment lies not in renewable energy projects, but in what students and graduates take away from their NOLS experience. They absorb our planet’s power and beauty, and they understand its fragility. They become skilled, positive leaders with acute environmental awareness and a strong ethical foundation that enhances their contribution to wild places and to the world.


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