Lindsay Priefert had her spring mapped out. The outdoor educator had contracted with Wyoming-based National Outdoor Leadership School to lead three of the five legs of a spring semester course. She had already taken the 11 students winter camping near Togwotee Pass and conducted a wilderness first responder session near Boulder. Her plan was to take a break while the students went rafting before meeting up with them to spend April backpacking in southern Utah.
But when she returned home to Lander in mid-March, NOLS informed her it was cancelling the remainder of the semester due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
“The first hit was like, ugh these students were going to get a lot out of this, I’m sad they’re missing out on that,” Priefert said. “The next hit was for me, I really love this work. Working in the canyons in April is my favorite stuff. So it was like personal grief.”
Finally, she said, came “gratitude that NOLS was ahead of the curve and making good decisions for its students.”
In fact, the school was in the midst of a mad logistical dash to pull all its people from the field before travel lockdowns stranded students and instructors in all corners of the world.
It was the beginning of a chain of falling dominoes and seismic upheaval at the school, which is the fourth largest employer in Fremont County, according to the school. Or it was — NOLS has since laid off or cut hours of more than 60% of its full-time staff in reaction to the pandemic, and estimates more than 500 field instructors lost work in the crisis.
Travel and close-quarters collaboration are both fundamental to the school’s operations. As COVID-19 brought both activities to a halt, the school was left foundering. Making deep cuts was the only way to ensure a path for the nonprofit school to survive, President Terri Watson said.
NOLS is one of myriad Wyoming institutions clobbered by the public health crisis. From the energy sector to the tourism industry, tribal casinos and newspapers, few fields have been spared. The question now is how and if they will emerge on the other side.
At the school, the staff that remains is working to overcome one of the biggest existential crises it has faced in 55 years of operation.
“I have immense hope and belief that we’re gonna come through this,” said Watson, who is maintaining what she calls tragic optimism just four months into her time as president.
“You have to acknowledge the tragedy of your current reality without blinking and you have to maintain that optimism that you are going to get through,” Watson said. “And we’re going to have to embrace a new reality.”
NOLS has humble roots; founder Paul Petzoldt started it in a cabin in Sinks Canyon with a vision of teaching leadership and outdoor skills on wilderness expeditions. By 2020, it had grown into a multifaceted, global heavyweight in the world of outdoor education.
Along with running expeditionary courses, NOLS became one of the leading providers of wilderness medical training with the acquisition of the Wilderness Medicine Institute. NOLS also operates a custom education division that offers specialized training for groups like NASA astronauts. It maintains operating bases and dispatches instructors around the world — from Kenya to Mexico, Australia to the Himalayas — to lead courses that run from a couple weeks to whole college semesters.
At the beginning of 2020, its headquarters in Lander was bustling. The school had more than 1,100 W2 employees, $40 million in annual revenue, 16 campuses around the world and $20 million in payroll, including $5 million in Lander, according to school figures. NOLS counts more than 350,000 alumni of its courses worldwide, including 29,000 in 2019 alone.
When COVID-19 emerged, Watson said, NOLS officials watched it carefully, knowing it could have massive impacts on operations. Pretty soon, she said, the idea of “having 30 students in [wilderness medicine] classrooms in close quarters for 2-10 days just seemed dumb in light of what we were learning. We just decided, no, we are just 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 things were just accelerating at an astronomical pace,” she said. “It was like, the handwriting is on the wall, the wheels are starting to fall off the bus.”
By March 16, NOLS suspended or cancelled all short-term courses — including the ones that were already in the field.
Thus began a frantic and complex logistical scramble to track and extract courses in locations as remote as New Zealand and Patagonia, de-issue students’ equipment and rebook flights — all while refunding or prorating tuition fees, cancelling contracts and paying out instructors who had been called off.
“From where I was sitting It felt like I was overseeing Dunkirk,” Watson said, referring to the narrowly managed retreat of surrounded British forces from a French beach in World War II.
Through “a lot of heroics,” they got everyone home, “and we could finally exhale,” Watson said.
But in the meantime, the pandemic had devastated revenues. The next challenge became clear: How to continue operating and remain financially viable.
NOLS dipped into its operating reserves, but once executives began doing the math, it was clear that with a $40 million annual budget, they would burn through reserves within months, Watson said. On top of that, she said, the school didn’t qualify for assistance from the federal relief package.
With no other options, Watson said, she and other executives began the excruciating process of cutting staff.
On April 8, the school laid off or reduced hours of more than 60% of its global in-town staff. That’s on top of the 500+ instructors who had already lost work, and others who were facing furloughs of indeterminate lengths as courses are grounded.
Watson voluntarily took a 50% pay cut and the executive team also saw reduced pay, she said.
“Were there any other viable options available to us, we would have taken them gladly,” Watson wrote in a letter to employees obtained by WyoFile. “The bottom line is this: if we continued spending at this pace without tuition revenue, we would run out of cash in just a few months, and we would be forced to shutter completely and indefinitely.”
Between March 1 and July 1, the school cancelled 750 courses and lost $20 million in revenue, according to its figures.
These days, the headquarters is quiet as much of the remaining staff continues to work from home. Where some 150 people used to roam the hallways, at most two to three people occupy each wing of the large three-story brick building.
The idea, Watson said, was to shrink the school to a size where staff can handle the essentials but also scale up when it’s time to resume educating. The layoffs extend its operating reserve into late fall, she said.
Beyond being an employer, NOLS has also helped weave the cultural and economic fabric of Lander since 1965. The school introduced young people from around the world to this remote corner of the northern Rockies — then lured many of them to put down roots with jobs. Many Lander residents now working in other fields — nurses, school board members, landlords, teachers, NGO directors — came to town because of the school or are descended from those who did. More than 2,000 alumni, former employees or donors list Lander — population 7,500 — as their hometown, according to the school.
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 get a master’s in organizational development, and now works as a consultant along with fulfilling her elected position and taking on the occasional course.
White worries about the economic impact NOLS’ layoffs will have — on local businesses and even the housing market, she said. But if there’s one thing NOLS instills in its employees, she said, it’s an ability to handle adversity.
Plus, “what I’ve always said is that one of NOLS’ greatest strengths is we’re really good at creating systems out of duct tape and p-cord,” she said.
The school has faced trouble before. There was the 2008 recession, 9-11 and one particularly tumultuous period when the school ran out of money and parted ways with Petzoldt.
“Back then, they were totally broke and had to rebuild a business from scratch,” Watson said. “Now we have some limited reserves, but have to rebuild in a whole new world.”
The human faces
Priefert moved to Wyoming sight unseen to work for NOLS in 2014, becoming a full-time instructor in 2018.
“I love the communities we build separate from front-country distractions, I love watching students realize what they are capable of,” she said. “I love the collaborative teamwork.” Spending all those days and nights outside in beautiful places wasn’t bad either, she said.
Along with the now-aborted spring semester, she had contracted to lead courses in June and July. Now, she said, her plan is “a little up in the air.”
She filed for unemployment, and has been researching other training and work opportunities, she said. But Lander is home.
A lot of people are sad, she said. “But I also feel this pride and cheerleader feeling of: Please do what you need to do and we will take care of ourselves 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 since 2013, after he opted to go into outdoor education rather than pursue medical school. The gig has taken him high into the mountains of Alaska, India and Wyoming. In between courses, he resides in Lander, where he and his wife own a house.
In the outbreak fallout, his next scheduled course, on Denali, was cancelled and he was furloughed. In mid-April, with no sure NOLS work on the horizon, Perkinson started a new job: working in the kitchen at the Gannett Grill restaurant.
“It’s a different experience for sure, but it’s definitely helping pay the mortgage,” he said. He plans to wait and see about NOLS, he said, and in the meantime explore some other career ideas.
“I’m definitely very grateful for it,” he said of his time at the school, “the different experiences I got to have in the last nine years. I think there will be plenty more, but I’m just not sure how soon.”
Not everyone is expecting their NOLS work will return.
Brad Christensen began working at NOLS 18 years ago. He had moved to Lander to do tech support for his uncle’s woodworking business, but it was a career at NOLS that kept him in town.
Christensen, who has an IT background, was first hired as a publications assistant at the school. He was promoted to web master, a title he held for 10 years, before becoming creative director. In that role, he managed the print and online content of the school, overseeing a team that grew from two people to 10, and most recently included writers, graphic designers and videographers.
As NOLS extracted courses from the field in March, Christensen and his department went home to work remotely. Even with advance warning from the school that it would be shedding jobs, Christensen said he didn’t anticipate his team would be impacted. He didn’t even consider it.
But on April 8, Christensen was handed the heavy news: he and most of his department were laid off.
“Now there are two people. It’s back to where it was 18 years ago,” he said. “Which is kind of heartbreaking to me to kind of see that fall apart … there were so many talented people working there. And they weren’t working there for the paycheck. It was a great team.”
Christensen also said he’s not going anywhere. He owns a house, which he shares with his girlfriend — another newly-out-of-work NOLS employee.
“I built a life, I fell in love with Lander and I have no intention of leaving Lander,” he said. He doubts, though, that “my job, and employment at NOLS for me and what I do, will ever come back.”
He has filed for unemployment, built a resume for the first time in nearly two decades and had to find insurance.
“I don’t know what the next thing is gonna be, but I have managed to save some money. I had a ton of paid time off, which is going to help buy some time as I figure things out,” he said. “I just don’t feel like it’s a dire situation right now, but also looking at the job market, this is not a good time to be looking for a job. We’ll kind of see where this goes.”
Christensen is incredibly sad for his team, he said. “But I’ve never been angry at NOLS. The situation … it’s brutal. What can you possibly do to prepare for something catastrophic like that?”