Mariposa Gazette | Unique learning project first of its kind in U.S.
November 30, 2017 - 2:13pm
NatureBridge center in Yosemite will be only one in national park
Read the original article written by Matt Johnson and published by the Mariposa Gazette here.
A unique project is underway in Yosemite National Park.
Construction is ongoing to complete The National Environmental Science Center. Once complete, this center will be a 16-building campus where students, teachers, organizations and others can convene for a wide variety of purposes.
The center is located on Henness Ridge, a few miles south of Yosemite Valley in the park. When Moose Mutlow talks about the project, he lights up.
Mutlow, project director for the center, says it will be the first of its kind at any national park in the United States, and “the lodge of the next century.”
It will feature a classroom/laboratory building, amphitheater, cabins, bathhouse, dining hall and more.
The campus is federal property and a federal project, but is be- ing completed by NatureBridge, a partner of the National Park Service, and will be used by NatureBridge under a cooperative agreement.
NatureBridge serves thousands of students in grades K-12 every year throughout the national park system. NatureBridge provides hands-on environmental science program through multi-day outdoor visits to its locations.
“We primarily work with school groups, teaching environmental science and socio-emotional learning,” said Kristina Rylands, NatureBridge’s Yosemite Regional Director.
So far, NatureBridge has secured over $20 million in philanthropic investments to create the campus, with more fundraising ongoing.
NatureBridge will complete the campus in phases. The first phase should be completed by the fall of 2018 and will allow for 56 beds.
Over the next half decade, as construction is finished, the campus will be able to accommodate 224 people in its cabins.
Some of the educational opportunities which the center will offer are chances to learn more about fire science, the nearby trail system, the local ecology and nature in general.
“We’ll be able to use this place ... with students to get them working side by side with wildland firefighters and learning how to restore fire (in the area) as a natural process,” Rylands said.
Mutlow said he believes national parks are a “birthright” for every American student.
“If you demonstrate that Yosemite is a place that belongs to every American, there is a chance to ripple that out regionally, nationally and internationally, as a place that young children are not deprived access,” Mutlow said.
Rylands said the vision is to “create the next generation of park stewards and planet stewards” by inspiring youth. 
Several eco-friendly aspects planned
Much of the construction has been and will be completed by local labor.
“We have crews here from Madera, Tuolumne and Mariposa County, three gateway communities,” Mutlow said.
One of the special features of the campus is it offers 100 per- cent universal accessibility, meaning it is usable by a wide range of people, regardless of age, size or disability status.
“Every aspect of all the buildings we have is universally ac- cessible,” Rylands said. “Which is something we’re really proud about.”
“There are few programs that measure up,” Mutlow added.
“This has a level of thought that has gone into it for inclusiveness that should be a model.”
The center uses several strategies and systems to be eco-friendly as well. The campus is also Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) platinum certified.  LEED is a national certification system developed by the U.S. Green Building Council to encourage the construction of energy and resource-efficient buildings that are healthy to live in. The campus is also a net-zero energy facility, meaning the total amount of energy used by the facility on an annual basis is roughly equal to the amount of renewable energy created on the site.
Old NatureBridge location closing
NatureBridge currently operates a 60-bed facility located at Crane Flat in Yosemite National Park. Soon, NatureBridge will cease operations at Crane Flat and the National Park Service will demolish the buildings there. The site will be restored to wilderness status.
“It’s going to be re-vegetated to what it should be,” Mutlow said.
Rylands called the Crane Flat facility an “aging facility” which is “limping along.”
“It’s become unsustainable for us to continue operating there,” Rylands said. “There are issues with the septic system, in terms of natural resources and concerns over meadow habitat and sensitive species, such as the Great Grey Owl.”
Rylands said that as NatureBridge came to a “crossroads” and assessed its options, it became apparent it needed a “permanent home.”
“It became clear that trying to expand the facility there, or even just do a makeover of that facility was probably not the wisest idea,” Rylands said.
NatureBridge also operates a learning center, in conjunction with the park’s concessionaire, in Half Dome Village from September through June each school year. This learning center will remain in existence, and between it and the new Henness Ridge campus, NatureBridge will be able to accommodate close to 500 students.
Founded as Yosemite Institute in 1971, NatureBridge is the largest education partner in the entire national park system. It works to bring students from underserved communities to its programs and to national parks.
According to its website, almost 50 percent of participating schools receive scholarship support, and more than 30 percent of students are from underrepresented communities.
“We are national in scale and scope,” Rylands said.
For more on NatureBridge, visit
Matt Johnson is Sports and Education Editor of the Mariposa Ga- zette and can be reached at