Lindsay Priefert had her feather mapped out. The the end educator had contracted through Wyoming-based national Outdoor management School to lead three of the five legs of a spring semester course. She had already taken the 11 student winter camping near Togwotee Pass and also conducted a wilderness very first responder session close to Boulder. Her setup was to take a break while the students walk rafting prior to meeting up v them to spend April backpacking in southerly Utah.

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But when she returned house to Lander in mid-March, NOLS informed her it was cancelling the remainder that the semester as result of the COVID-19 outbreak.

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

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


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

In fact, the institution was in the middle of a mad logistical dash come pull all its people from the field before travel lockdowns stranded students and instructors in all corners that the world.

It to be the beginning of a chain of fallout’s dominoes and seismic upheaval at the school, which is the 4th largest employer in Fremont County, follow to the school. Or it to be — NOLS has because laid off or reduced hours of more than 60% the its permanent staff in reaction come the pandemic, and also estimates more than 500 ar instructors lost work in the crisis.

Travel and close-quarters cooperation are both an essential to the school’s operations. Together COVID-19 brought both tasks to a halt, the college was left foundering. Make deep cut was the only method to for sure a course for the nonprofit school to survive, president Terri Watson said.

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

At the school, the staff that continues to be is functioning to overcome among the best existential situations it has confronted in 55 year of operation.

“I have immense hope and also belief the we’re gonna come with this,” stated Watson, who is preserving what she calls tragic positive outlook just four months right into her time as president.


“You need to acknowledge the tragedy that your existing reality without blinking and also you need to maintain that positive outlook that you room going to gain through,” Watson said. “And we’re going to have to embrace a new reality.”

NOLS has actually humble roots; founder Paul Petzoldt started it in a cabin in sink Canyon v a vision of to teach leadership and outdoor an abilities on wilderness expeditions. By 2020, it had grown into a multifaceted, worldwide heavyweight in the world of the end education.


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Learning the ins and outs of climbing Denali. Photo: NPS


Along v running expeditionary courses, NOLS became one the the leading companies of wilderness clinical training v the acquisition of the Wilderness medication Institute. NOLS likewise operates a practice education division that offers dedicated training for groups like NASA astronauts. It maintains operation bases and also dispatches instructors roughly the human being — native Kenya to Mexico, Australia come the Himalayas — to lead process that run from a couple weeks to entirety college semesters.

At the beginning of 2020, the headquarters in Lander to be bustling. The college had an ext than 1,100 W2 employees, $40 million in annual revenue, 16 campuses roughly the world, and $20 million in payroll, consisting of $5 million in Lander, follow to school figures. NOLS counts more than 350,000 alumni the its courses worldwide, consisting of 29,000 in 2019 alone.

When COVID-19 emerged, Watson said, NOLS officials watched it carefully, discovering it might have massive effects on operations. Nice soon, she said, the idea the “having 30 student in classrooms in close quarters for 2-10 days simply seemed dumb in light of what we were learning. We simply decided, no, us are simply not doing this.”

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

Then the dominoes started falling in earnest, Watson said.

“Every day points were just speeding up at an huge pace,” she said. “It was like, the handwriting is ~ above the wall, the wheel are starting to fall off the bus.”

By march 16, NOLS suspended or cancelled all momentary courses — consisting of the ones the were currently in the field.

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

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

Through “a many heroics,” they obtained everyone home, “and we could finally exhale,” Watson said.

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

NOLS dipped right into its operating reserves, yet once executives started doing the math, it was clear that through a $40 million annual budget, they would certainly burn through reserves in ~ months, Watson said. On peak of that, she said, the college didn’t qualified for assistance from the commonwealth relief package.

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

On April 8, the college laid turn off or lessened hours of more than 60% of its global in-town staff. It is on peak of the 500+ instructors who had already lost work, and also others who were dealing with furloughs that indeterminate lengths together courses space grounded.

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

“Were there any type of other viable options obtainable to us, we would have actually taken castle gladly,” Watson wrote in a letter to employees derived by WyoFile. “The bottom heat is this: if we continued spending at this pace without tuition revenue, we would certainly run the end of cash in just a few months, and also we would be forced to shutter fully and indefinitely.”

Between in march 1 and July 1, the institution 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 job-related from home. Wherein some 150 people used to roam the hallways, at most two come three civilization occupy every wing the the big three-story brick building.

The idea, Watson said, to be to shrink the school to a size where staff have the right to handle the essentials but additionally scale up when it’s time to resume educating. The layoffs extend its operation reserve right into late fall, she said.

Beyond being an employer, NOLS has likewise helped weave the cultural and economic cloth of Lander due to the fact that 1965. The school presented young civilization from around the world to this remote edge of the northern Rockies — climate lured plenty of of them to put down roots with jobs. Plenty of Lander inhabitants now working in other fields — nurses, college board members, landlords, teachers, NGO director — concerned town because of the college or are descended from those who did. Much more than 2,000 alumni, former employees or donors list Lander — population 7,500 — together their hometown, follow to the school.

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First-term city councilor Missy White is one of them. The longtime instructor was motivated in part by her time at NOLS, she said, to gain a master’s in organizational development, and now functions as a consultant in addition to fulfilling her elected position and taking top top the sometimes course.

White worries around the economic affect NOLS’ layoffs will have actually — on local businesses and even the housing market, she said. However if yes sir one point NOLS instills in the employees, she said, it’s an capacity to handle adversity.

Plus, “what I’ve constantly said is that one of NOLS’ best strengths is we’re really great at creating systems out of duct tape and p-cord,” she said.

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

“Back then, they were completely broke and had to rebuild a organization from scratch,” Watson said. “Now we have some restricted reserves, however have to rebuild in a whole new world.”

Priefert moved to Wyoming vision unseen to job-related for NOLS in 2014, becoming a full time instructor in 2018.

“I love the neighborhoods we construct separate indigenous front-country distractions, i love the town hall students realize what castle are qualified of,” she said. “I love the cooperation teamwork.” Spending all those days and nights outside in beautiful areas wasn’t bad either, she said.

Along v the now-aborted spring semester, she had actually contracted come lead process in June and also July. Now, she said, her plan is “a small up in the air.”

She filed because that unemployment, and also has been researching various other training and also work opportunities, she said. But Lander is home.

A lot of human being are sad, she said. “But I additionally feel this pride and also cheerleader emotion of: Please perform what you have to do and also we will take treatment of ourself in the meantime. We just want it to exist in the future.”

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

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

“It’s a various experience because that sure, but it’s certainly helping pay the mortgage,” he said. The plans come wait and see about NOLS, the said, and also in the meantime explore some various other career ideas.

“I’m definitely very grateful for it,” he said of his time in ~ the school, “the different experiences I acquired to have actually in the last nine years. I think there will certainly be lot of more, yet I’m simply not sure how soon.”

Not anyone is expecting your NOLS work will return.

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

In mid-April, v no sure NOLS work-related on the horizon, Perkinson started a new job: working in the kitchen at the Gannett Grill restaurant.

Christensen, who has actually an that background, was an initial hired as a publications assistant at the school. That was advocated to web master, a location he held for 10 years, prior to becoming creative director. In the role, he managed the print and online content of the school, overseeing a team that thrived from two human being to 10, and most recently included writers, graphic designers, and also videographers.

As NOLS extracted process from the ar in March, Christensen and also his room went residence to work remotely. Even with advance warning native the college that it would certainly be shedding jobs, Christensen said he no anticipate his team would be impacted. He no even take into consideration it.

But on April 8, Christensen to be handed the heavy news: he and most the his department to be laid off.

“Now there space two people. It’s back to wherein it to be 18 years ago,” that said. “Which is kind of heartbreaking to me to sort of watch that loss apart … there to be so many talented world working there. And also they weren’t working there because that the paycheck. It to be a good team.”

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

“I developed a life, I dropped in love with Lander and also I have actually no intention of leaving Lander,” the said. The doubts, though, that “my job, and employment in ~ NOLS for me and what ns do, will ever before come back.”

He has actually filed for unemployment, developed a resume for the very first time in practically two decades and also had to find insurance.

“I don’t recognize what the next thing is gonna be, but I have managed to save some money. I had actually a ton of payment time off, i beg your pardon is walk to help buy some time together I number things out,” he said. “I simply don’t feel favor it’s a dire instance right now, but also looking in ~ the job market, this is no a an excellent time come be looking for a job. We’ll sort of view where this goes.”

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

This post an initial appeared at WyoFile.

For a taste that what NOLS is every about, choose up a copy that The nationwide Outdoor management School’s Wilderness Guide: The standard Handbook. An exhaustive look at safety and leadership in the backcountry.