By JOHN PERSELL
Under a sizzling late-June sun, three rafts pull up along the east bank of the Grande Ronde River. Two of the occupants hop out and scramble up the steep, rocky slope, scouting for a camp for the night. Satisfied the stand of ponderosa pines will offer enough space and shade for the entire group of eight, the scouts beckon the rest of the crew to tie off and start the chore of unloading the boats. Gear and supplies are passed up the bank bucket brigade-style. With surprising speed, a fully-formed camp arises above the water, complete with a spacious kitchen, a mix of tents and hammocks, and a portable “Groover” toilet tucked behind some shrubs looking out across a magnificent canyon view.
The group set off on this five-night river trip not just for pleasure—although being on “river time” certainly qualifies as enjoyable. Rather, five students are here with an instructor and two assistants as a capstone experience for the Wilderness Leadership and Experiential Education (WLEE) program at Gresham’s Mt. Hood Community College (MHCC). Each student must participate in two week-long expeditions to complete the WLEE degree (affectionately referred to as “wheelie” by students and staff). These immersive experiences allow students to apply the skills they have built throughout the program, with opportunities for backpacking, rock climbing, and mountaineering in addition to
However, this crew on the Grande Ronde may be some of the last students to get this hands-on, practical experience and training on the river. In January of 2020, the Mt. Hood District Board of Education voted to phase out WLEE and six other programs, citing budget deficits and the threat of campus-wide tuition increases. The decision left many in the outdoor community scratching their heads. Oregon has seen an exponential increase in outdoor recreation in the last ten years as the population grew and social media led many more people to the state’s trails, rivers, and climbing crags. At a time when Leave No Trace ethics and outdoor skills are needed more than ever, how did the only community college wilderness leadership program in the state end up on the chopping block?
A Unique Field-Based Curriculum
MHCC’s WLEE program offered students two possible outcomes—either a one-year wilderness leadership certificate, or a two-year associate’s degree. Both paths centered around a core curriculum of skills courses, field experiences, and internships, with requirements for students to become certified Leave No Trace trainers and wilderness first responders. “We really designed WLEE so that students would leave here with hands-on training and experience,” says Josh Stratman, coordinator of the program since 2013. “We heard from outdoor employers that real-world experience and relevant certifications mattered most from a hiring standpoint, so we set students up for immediate success.”
To that end, completion of WLEE involves more days in the field and offers more certification opportunities than many four-year degree programs, with a major focus on Leave No Trace ethics and wilderness first responder training. Every WLEE course involves time outside turning theoretical knowledge into practical skills and experience. Each student participates in camping, backpacking, and snowshoeing trips, as well as map-and-compass navigation exercises and their choice of kayaking, rafting, skiing, climbing, and mountaineering excursions. Along the way, students can become certified climbing wall instructors and rescue technicians as well.
Stratman also set up the program to be “limited entry,” with only up to 20 students accepted each year. For skills-based courses, small class sizes allow instructors adequate time to work one-on-one with students when necessary, Stratman says, and to build camaraderie among each academic year’s cohort of new students.
Crunching the Numbers
WLEE’s inherently small size might have contributed to administrators’ scrutiny of the program, however. Stratman first learned MHCC administrators intended to review budgets, enrollment numbers, credit offerings, and student diversity campus-wide in early 2019. Along with other programs within the broader Health and Physical Education department, they submitted data to administrators in May of that year. Just a few months later, Stratman learned WLEE and six other programs were on the list for phase-out.
According to MHCC administrators, their review suggested potential WLEE students could get similar training elsewhere at less cost, the jobs students found after completing the program did not provide livable wages, and the WLEE certificate and associate’s degree were unnecessary for people to find employment in the outdoor industry. Stratman strongly disagrees with these suggestions. He designed the WLEE program so students could graduate with up to seven nationally-recognized outdoor leadership and rescue certifications, more than any other outdoor education program. The price tag for similar training through private courses or at four-year universities easily exceeds MHCC’s relatively modest tuition and fees.
WLEE graduate Amy Kelly also takes issue with MHCC’s conclusions. Kelly helps run Mt. Hood Skibowl, the year-round outdoor recreation destination near Government Camp. She secured a position with the company shortly after finishing the WLEE program in 2016. “I worked my way up very quickly, first running the bungee jumping station, then becoming assistant manager the next year,” Kelly says. After just three years, she is now a lead manager. The courses she completed through WLEE made her application stand out, according to Kelly. “Being a wilderness first responder and having rescue certifications, I had skills that applied across all seasons and all parts of Skibowl.”
Kelly also says that dollar figures alone do not motivate people in the outdoor industry. “We’re looking for quality of life, not just material things,” she says. People are drawn more to the flexible schedules and outdoor settings than the idea of a traditional salary. “Not everyone wants a nine-to-five job,” Kelly notes. Skilled outdoor leaders can work year-round if they want, she says, or enjoy off-seasons for their own pursuits.
Recent WLEE graduate Mitch Sheridan also disputes administrators’ assessment of the program’s value. Sheridan moved all the way from Georgia in 2017 to enroll in the WLEE program at MHCC, drawn by the affordable tuition, number of certifications offered, and two-year timeframe. An experienced whitewater kayaker, Sheridan wanted to become an instructor but hesitated to pursue higher education. “For students like me, who may not have enjoyed traditional academic settings in the past, WLEE’s structure and format really clicked,” he says. Sheridan has gone on to OSU-Cascades to complete a bachelor’s degree, but even before that, he landed positions with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) and Next Adventure’s Paddle Sports Center based on certifications he acquired through WLEE.
Students and Community Members Turned Out to Support WLEE
Upon learning that WLEE’s fate would come down to a vote by the seven-member Board, dozens of current and former students showed up at public meetings to provide testimony—emotional, at times—in support of keeping the program. Students pointed out to the Board that the WLEE program offered an accessible entry point into a competitive field, given the much higher cost of training through private programs like NOLS, or programs at Oregon’s four-year universities.
Community members, including representatives from the Gresham Chamber of Commerce and local search-and-rescue teams, also submitted letters encouraging the Board to retain and invest in WLEE rather than phase it out. With WLEE shuttered, the pipeline of students feeding four-year state university outdoor recreation programs has been cut off.
Stratman appreciated the way supporters articulated to the Mt. Hood Board the important role WLEE has played in students’ professional development while serving a need for well-trained outdoor leaders. Stratman himself made his best case to the Board for continuing to offer WLEE certificates and associate’s degrees. He noted that viewed in isolation and without proper context, enrollment numbers and degrees awarded did not present a full picture of student outcomes and the program’s value to the community, state, and region. “WLEE graduates are working for the Park Service, guiding fly-fishing trips on the Deschutes River, and helping run local institutions like Next Adventure,” according to Stratman. “Even students who never officially finished the program have found leadership roles in the outdoor industry based on the training they received right here at MHCC.”
Statewide Outdoor Leadership Coordination Needed
Stratman is also well aware of the increased number of people getting outside. As a Portland Mountain Rescue team member, he sees firsthand how things can go awry on the side of Mt. Hood or on the steep trails of the Columbia Gorge for even the most experienced climbers and hikers. He is also committed to the widely-shared goal of making outdoor recreation and the outdoor industry more accessible and inclusive. “I firmly believe WLEE would have played a key role in training the next generation of leaders and guides,” Stratman said. “The reasonable tuition at MHCC really opened the door to outdoor leadership for many students who otherwise might never have pursued this path.”
In the wake of WLEE’s discontinuation at MHCC, an overarching question emerges: Is anyone looking at the big, long-term picture for outdoor education and leadership in Oregon, given the increased numbers of people getting outside?
In October of 2020, the state Office of Outdoor Recreation released a “Framework for Action” report including a recommendation to “[a]lign outdoor recreation university and career programs.” Although the report was not officially finalized until ten months after the Mt. Hood Board voted to dismantle WLEE, its release stirred anticipation that the state will act on the recommendation. Perhaps when that happens, career programs like those offered through WLEE might be reexamined.
Now, however, an internet search landing on the WLEE webpage quickly informs readers that “[t]his program has been discontinued and is no longer accepting new students.” Stratman has had to turn away would-be students who found the program just a term or two too late to complete all the requirements before the phase-out. “‘You’re too late’ is one of the toughest things to tell someone who hoped WLEE was their path to outdoor leadership and employment,” he says.
Stratman and other past WLEE instructors, meanwhile, will continue as members of MHCC’s Health and Physical Education department faculty, offering outdoor-oriented activity courses for general credits. “I want to keep providing these opportunities to students,” he says. “MHCC can and should still fill the need for outdoor education however possible.” While students will no longer be able to participate in week-long capstone experiences like Grande Ronde rafting trips or mountaineering expeditions on the slopes of Mt. Rainier, smaller-scale weekend field outings may still be offered as enrollment dictates.
Stratman’s continued presence at MHCC offers some hope to WLEE graduates like Sheridan. “We need more, not fewer, programs like WLEE,” he says. “To be honest, I aspired to someday lead the program,” he continues. “I would have applied to replace Josh when he retires from MHCC,” Sheridan chuckles. “It would be cool to still have that opportunity.” HVN
John Persell works as a conservation attorney with a focus on public lands management. He will also be among the last MHCC students to complete the WLEE program this spring.