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Lander-headquartered outdoor school NOLS announces changes to address budget deficit

A large brick building on a street corner, with the words "NOLS World Headquarters."
National Outdoor Leadership School
The National Outdoor Leadership School's international headquarters building is located just off of Main Street in Lander. The organization is a large employer in Fremont County.

The National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) is a wilderness-focused school that leads immersive expeditions in Wyoming and around the world. Earlier in March, NOLS President Sandy Colhoun shared that the school will be making significant changes to address its financial challenges in a letter posted on the organization’s website.

The school is suspending operations on three of its 14 campuses in the fall. Those campuses are located in Washington, Arizona, and New York and will be closed for the next two years. After that, the organization will re-evaluate whether or not they will maintain their connection to the properties.

Colhoun said the closures are an effort to simplify and streamline the organization’s programs in response to lower student enrollment.

“What we're trying to do is to move those students who are currently enrolling in the Pacific Northwest and move them into the Rocky Mountains or Patagonia or Alaska, which have higher degrees of efficiency and scale than we can provide in the Pacific Northwest and other campuses,” he said.

This means that more students may be funneled towards NOLS’ Rocky Mountain Campus, which is based in Lander. But, Colhoun said they’ll also go to other campuses, like the NOLS Three Peaks Ranch in Boulder, Wyoming or the school’s river base in Vernal, Utah, so he imagines the impact on Lander will be minimal in that regard.

The school is also cutting 60 jobs, 42 of which will result in the layoffs of current employees. The remaining positions are currently vacant and will either be eliminated or simply not be filled because of the organizational restructuring.

Of the hundreds of people working for the organization around the world, 130 live and work in Wyoming. Only two of the 60 job cuts are at the school’s international headquarters, which is based in Lander.

Ruby Jean Photography
National Outdoor Leadership School
NOLS President Sandy Colhoun

Colhoun recognized that all those cuts have real impacts on people’s livelihoods and emphasized that the organization put upwards of six months of collaborative problem-solving into the decision. But, he said the overall impact of the cuts on the local community in and around Lander is likely to be limited.

“NOLS has a lifetime commitment to Lander and to the state of Wyoming. We're not going anywhere. We love this part of the world, we’re loyal and we’re dedicated to it,” he said.

Colhoun said the changes to cut expenses were not made lightly and that big-picture innovation is necessary to get the school back on track.

“We can't cut our way out of this situation, we need to grow. That doesn't mean we need to become the Walmart of the outdoors. What we want to do is to grow to a sustainable level so that our revenues meet our expenses, because we're a school and our impact and profit is the outcome for our students,” he said.

For Colhoun, the changes are crucial for the school’s ability to continue operating in the long-term. He said the school’s assets and endowment fund provide a strong foundation for the future.

“We’re not going anywhere, but we have to have a business model that allows us to have balanced books. These decisions are hard, but I remain optimistic that they are the steps we need to take to build and secure the next chapter for NOLS,” he said.

Moving forward, NOLS is planning to offer more of the types of courses that have been popular in recent years and show a lot of opportunity for growth. That includes adventure programs for students in the 14-16 age range and trips for NOLS alumni, as well as trips that offer certifications like Wilderness First Responders.

Editor’s note: The author of this article has led expeditions for NOLS in the past.

Hannah Habermann is the rural and tribal reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. She has a degree in Environmental Studies and Non-Fiction Writing from Middlebury College and was the co-creator of the podcast Yonder Lies: Unpacking the Myths of Jackson Hole. Hannah also received the Pattie Layser Greater Yellowstone Creative Writing & Journalism Fellowship from the Wyoming Arts Council in 2021 and has taught backpacking and climbing courses throughout the West.
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