Lindsay Priefert had her feather mapped out. The outdoor educator had actually contracted with Wyoming-based nationwide Outdoor management School come lead 3 of the five legs that a spring semester course. She had already taken the 11 student winter camping near Togwotee Pass and also conducted a wilderness first responder session near Boulder. Her plan was to take it a break while the students go rafting prior to meeting up through them to spend April backpacking in southerly Utah.

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But as soon as she returned home to Lander in mid-March, NOLS educated her it was cancelling the remainder the the semester due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

NOLS counts much more than 350,000 alumni of its courses worldwide, consisting of 29,000 in 2019 alone.

“The an initial hit was like, ugh these students to be going to get a lot the end of this, i’m sad they’re absent out ~ above that,” Priefert said. “The following hit to be for me, i really love this work. Functioning in the canyons in April is my favourite stuff. For this reason it to be like an individual grief.”


Finally, she said, come “gratitude the NOLS was ahead that the curve and also making good decisions for its students.”

In fact, the college was in the midst of a mad logistical dash come pull all its civilization from the field before travel lockdowns stranded students and also instructors in every corners of the world.

It was the start of a chain of fall dominoes and seismic upheaval in ~ the school, i m sorry is the 4th largest employee in Fremont County, follow to the school. Or it to be — NOLS has because laid off or reduced hours of an ext than 60% of its permanent staff in reaction to the pandemic, and estimates much more than 500 field instructors shed work in the crisis.

Travel and close-quarters teamwork are both fundamental to the school’s operations. As COVID-19 brought both activities to a halt, the college was left foundering. Make deep cut was the only means to ensure a path for the nonprofit college to survive, chairman Terri Watson said.

NOLS is one of myriad Wyoming organizations clobbered through the public health and wellness crisis. Native the power sector to the travel industry, tribal casinos and newspapers, couple of fields have actually been spared. The question now is how and if lock will emerge on the various other side.

At the school, the employee that stays is functioning to overcome among the biggest existential situations it has confronted in 55 years of operation.

“I have actually immense hope and belief that we’re gonna come with this,” stated Watson, who is maintaining what she phone call tragic optimism just 4 months into her time as president.

“You have to acknowledge the tragedy the your current reality there is no blinking and you need to maintain that optimism that you space going to acquire through,” Watson said. “And we’re walk to have actually to take on a new reality.”

NOLS has actually humble roots; founder Paul Petzoldt began it in a cabin in sink Canyon with a vision of to teach leadership and outdoor skills on wilderness expeditions. By 2020, it had grown right into a multifaceted, an international heavyweight in the people of the end education.


Learning the ins and also outs of rise Denali. Photo: NPS

Along through running expeditionary courses, NOLS became one the the leading service providers of wilderness clinical training through the salvation of the Wilderness medication Institute. NOLS likewise operates a custom education department that offers committed training for teams like NASA astronauts. The maintains operating bases and also dispatches instructors about the civilization — from Kenya to Mexico, Australia come the Himalayas — to lead process that run from a pair weeks to whole college semesters.

At the start of 2020, that headquarters in Lander was bustling. The college had much more than 1,100 W2 employees, $40 million in annual revenue, 16 campuses about the world, and $20 million in payroll, including $5 million in Lander, according to college figures. NOLS counts more than 350,000 alumni that its process worldwide, including 29,000 in 2019 alone.

When COVID-19 emerged, Watson said, NOLS public official watched that carefully, knowing it can have massive effects on operations. Nice soon, she said, the idea of “having 30 students in classrooms in close soldier for 2-10 days simply seemed dumb in irradiate of what us were learning. We simply decided, no, us are just not law this.”

On march 12, NOLS suspended classroom-based college student programs and cancelled some ar courses.

Then the dominoes started falling in earnest, Watson said.

“Every day points were just increasing at an expensive pace,” she said. “It was like, the handwriting is top top the wall, the wheels are starting to autumn off the bus.”

By march 16, NOLS suspended or cancelled all short-lived courses — including the ones the were already in the field.

Thus began a frantic and facility logistical scramble come track and extract process in places as remote as brand-new Zealand and Patagonia, de-issue students’ equipment and also rebook flights — all while refunding or prorating tuition fees, cancelling contracts, and paying out instructors who had been dubbed off.

“From where I to be sitting that felt choose I was overseeing Dunkirk,” Watson said, introduce to the narrowly controlled retreat of surrounded British pressures from a French coast in civilization War II.

Through “a lot of heroics,” they gained everyone home, “and we can finally exhale,” Watson said.

But in the meantime, the pandemic had ruined revenues. The next an obstacle became clear: just how to proceed operating and also remain financially viable.

NOLS dipped right into its operation reserves, but once executives began doing the math, it was clear that v a $40 million yearly budget, they would burn through reserves within months, Watson said. On peak of that, she said, the school didn’t qualify for help from the federal relief package.

With no other options, Watson said, she and other executives started the excruciating procedure of cut staff.

On April 8, the school laid turn off or diminished hours of an ext than 60% that its an international in-town staff. That’s on peak of the 500+ instructors who had currently lost work, and others that were facing furloughs of indeterminate lengths as courses are grounded.

Watson voluntarily took a 50% pay cut and the executive team additionally saw decreased pay, she said.

“Were there any other viable options easily accessible to us, we would have taken castle gladly,” Watson created in a letter come employees acquired by WyoFile. “The bottom heat is this: if we continued spending in ~ this speed without tuition revenue, we would run out of cash in just a couple of months, and we would be compelled to shutter totally and indefinitely.”

Between in march 1 and also July 1, the school cancelled 750 courses and lost $20 million in revenue, follow to its figures.

These days, the headquarters is quiet as lot of the continuing to be staff continues to occupational from home. Whereby some 150 people used to roam the hallways, at many two come three people occupy every wing that the big three-story brick building.

The idea, Watson said, was to shrink the college to a size where staff deserve to handle the essentials but additionally scale up as soon as it’s time to resume educating. The layoffs prolong its operation reserve into late fall, she said.

Beyond being an employer, NOLS has also helped weave the cultural and economic fabric of Lander due to the fact that 1965. The school introduced young civilization from approximately the people to this remote corner of the north Rockies — then lured numerous of castle to placed down roots through jobs. Countless Lander citizens now functioning in other fields — nurses, school board members, landlords, teachers, NGO director — involved town since of the institution or room descended native those who did. An ext than 2,000 alumni, former employees or donors perform Lander — population 7,500 — as their hometown, according to the school.

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First-term city senator Missy White is one of them. The longtime instructor was urged in part by she time in ~ NOLS, she said, to obtain a master’s in organizational development, and now works as a consultant together with fulfilling her elected position and taking top top the occasional course.

White worries about the economic influence NOLS’ layoffs will have actually — on regional businesses and also even the real estate market, she said. Yet if yes one point NOLS instills in the employees, she said, it’s an capacity to handle adversity.

Plus, “what I’ve constantly said is that among NOLS’ best strengths is we’re really good at developing systems the end of duct tape and p-cord,” she said.

The school has confronted trouble before. There was the 2008 recession, 9-11 and one specifically tumultuous duration when the institution ran out of money and also parted methods with Petzoldt.

“Back then, castle were completely broke and also had to rebuild a business from scratch,” Watson said. “Now we have some limited reserves, yet have come rebuild in a whole brand-new world.”

Priefert relocated to Wyoming vision unseen to work for NOLS in 2014, coming to be a permanent instructor in 2018.

“I love the neighborhoods we build separate native front-country distractions, i love the town hall students establish what they are capable of,” she said. “I love the collaborative teamwork.” Spending every those days and nights external in beautiful areas wasn’t negative either, she said.

Along with the now-aborted feather semester, she had actually contracted come lead courses in June and July. Now, she said, her plan is “a little up in the air.”

She filed for unemployment, and has to be researching other training and work opportunities, she said. However Lander is home.

A lot of world are sad, she said. “But I likewise feel this pride and cheerleader feeling of: Please perform what you have to do and also we will take care of ourself in the meantime. We simply want it to exist in the future.”

Jake Perkinson understands the sentiment. He’d to be instructing full-time for the school due to the fact that 2013, after ~ he choose to enter outdoor education rather than pursue clinical school. The gig has actually taken the high right into the mountains of Alaska, India, and also Wyoming. In between courses, he lives in Lander, whereby he and also his wife own a house.

In the outbreak fallout, his following scheduled course, top top Denali, to be cancelled and he was furloughed. In mid-April, v no sure NOLS work-related on the horizon, Perkinson began a brand-new job: functioning in the kitchen in ~ the Gannett Grill restaurant.

“It’s a different experience because that sure, but it’s definitely helping salary the mortgage,” he said. He plans come wait and also see around NOLS, he said, and also in the meantime explore some other career ideas.

“I’m definitely really grateful because that it,” he said of his time in ~ the school, “the various experiences I gained to have actually in the last nine years. I think there will certainly be lot of more, but I’m simply not sure exactly how soon.”

Not anyone is expecting their NOLS work-related will return.

Brad Christensen started working at NOLS 18 year ago. He had actually moved to Lander to do tech assistance for his uncle’s woodworking business, however it to be a career at NOLS that retained him in town.

In mid-April, through no certain NOLS work-related on the horizon, Perkinson began a new job: working in the kitchen in ~ the Gannett Grill restaurant.

Christensen, who has an it background, was an initial hired together a publication assistant in ~ the school. The was advocated to web master, a location he held for 10 years, prior to becoming an innovative director. In the role, he managed the print and online contents of the school, overseeing a team that grew from two world to 10, and also most recently included writers, graphic designers, and also videographers.

As NOLS extracted process from the ar in March, Christensen and his room went residence to work remotely. Also with advance warning native the institution that it would certainly be shedding jobs, Christensen claimed he no anticipate his team would be impacted. He didn’t even consider it.

But ~ above April 8, Christensen was handed the heavy news: he and most the his department were laid off.

“Now there are two people. It’s earlier to whereby it was 18 year ago,” he said. “Which is type of heartbreaking to me to sort of view that fall apart … there were so countless talented people working there. And also they weren’t functioning there because that the paycheck. It to be a good team.”

Christensen likewise said he’s not going anywhere. He own a house, which that shares with his girl friend — an additional newly-out-of-work NOLS employee.

“I developed a life, I fell in love through Lander and I have actually no intentionally of leaving Lander,” he said. That doubts, though, the “my job, and also employment in ~ NOLS because that me and what i do, will ever before come back.”

He has actually filed because that unemployment, built a resume for the very first time in almost two decades and had to uncover insurance.

“I don’t understand what the next thing is gonna be, however I have regulated to save some money. I had actually a ton of paid time off, i m sorry is walking to assist buy some time together I figure things out,” that said. “I simply don’t feel like it’s a dire case right now, but also looking at the project market, this is not a great time come be searching for a job. We’ll sort of view where this goes.”

Christensen is incredibly sad for his team, the said. “But I’ve never been angry at NOLS. The situation … that brutal. What have the right to you possibly carry out to prepare because that something catastrophic favor that?”

This post first appeared at WyoFile.

For a taste of what NOLS is every about, pick up a copy of The national Outdoor management School’s Wilderness Guide: The classic Handbook. An exhaustive look in ~ safety and leadership in the backcountry.