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The Leader

Letter from the Executive Director

Reprinted from The Leader, Summer 2000, Vol. 16, No. 3, NOLS 35th Anniversary Insert

Thirty-five years ago a group of young people arrived in Lander, Wyoming, to embark on the first NOLS course. On that historic day, I am sure the staff and students carried a sea of emotions--along with their heavy packs and wool clothing--into the Wind River Range. I'm sure this all-male course was filled with a brew of fear, excitement, apprehension, dreams and anticipation. I would imagine that the staff, led by Paul Petzoldt, were excited about the new school and were mulling grand future visions while they hustled with the heavy work and likely chaos of the first course.

Today, many of those same emotions are still carried into the field with every course. Hopefully there is less chaos and more organization, but the anticipation, dreams, excitement and apprehension are likely floating around every bus that heads for the roadhead.

Thirty-five years doesn't sound like a very long time. Certainly we are far younger than most educational organizations, and in many ways we are still discovering ways to achieve our educational mission. Yet, the more I think about it, the more significant 35 years seems to be in our fast-changing world. Thousands of businesses and non-profits have come and gone in the past 35 years. We are now in an era where the majority of NOLS employees were not even born when the school started (the average instructor age is 31). The majority of our staff were not alive when the Wilderness Act was signed or the first Earth Day held. In 35 years we have started new branch schools and ceased operating in other areas, but for that matter new countries have also come into existence and others have faded from the world's map. Around the world we have become more urban, our population has expanded dramatically, wild areas have been put under further pressure and technology has changed dramatically. At NOLS, the definitions of minimum impact have changed, land use permits are tighter, outdoor gear has improved dramatically and we no longer drive students to the roadhead in the back of a cattle truck.

The old debates about whether there will ever be a climb completed that is harder than 5.10 now seem ridiculous. While pitons are out and climbing is "clean," the number of body piercings on our students has gone up. When looking at these changes, 35 years does start to seem like a longer period of time.

While changes have taken place, I am also impressed with the number of things that have remained the same. The vast majority of our programs still take place in the wilderness and they still focus on leadership, conservation and wilderness skills. Our education is experiential, active and therefore remembered for a lifetime. We continue to be leaders in wilderness risk management putting strong emphasis on safety in the field. We teach about the wilderness we operate in, and are not just using it as a medium for some other goal. Our courses still provide extended periods of time in a wilderness setting--a setting that provides real experiences with real consequences and builds judgement. And yes, Lander, Wyoming is still our primary home. I believe it is our strict adherence to these core elements that has helped NOLS stay focused and remain in existence throughout these 35 years of change.

While holding to our core has been important, I must thank the extended NOLS family that has held to this core for 35 years. The 50,000 students and alumni, the thousands of staff and volunteers and the many supporters have brought us to this significant milestone. It has been a community that has worked hard, volunteered time, innovated constantly, and brought passion to their work and play. We feature a few members of the NOLS family in this Leader. While you read through their profiles, keep in mind the many other folks from the 60's, 70's, 80's and 90's who have left their mark on us all. Thank you all for making 35 great years possible and for building an organization that has a bright and compelling future.

John Gans
Executive Director



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