National Outdoors Leadership School Announces Massive Layoffs, Wyoming Mostly Spared

The Lander-based National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) laid off 60 workers and closed three campuses across the U.S. this week. The organization says there are serious financial challenges to overcome despite its "robust $50 million endowment and strong financial reserves to weather these storms."

Andrew Rossi

March 15, 20244 min read

The National Outdoor Leadership School headquarters in Lander, Wyoming.
The National Outdoor Leadership School headquarters in Lander, Wyoming. (Cowboy State Daily Staff)

The National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) announced massive layoffs and suspended operations at three campuses in the U.S. this week, but the organization’s home office in Wyoming remains mostly intact.

The Lander-based outdoor education organization and its Wyoming operations will continue, but there are serious financial challenges to overcome, the organization reports.

NOLS President Sandy Colhoun announced the massive changes Tuesday and some staff, including two positions in Lander, were informed they were being let go the same day.

“With a heavy heart, I write to inform you of some significant changes that will be taking place within our school in the coming days,” Colhoun said. “These decisions were not made lightly, and we understand the profound impact they will have on our community.”

‘Significant Changes’

Colhoun laid out the sudden, drastic measures being taken "to address NOLS's financial challenges” and “refocus our efforts and emerge stronger and more resilient than ever before.”

The overall NOLS workforce will be reduced by 60 positions. That means 42 administrative and support staff members will be directly impacted, and 18 vacant positions will either be eliminated or unfilled.

In addition to the layoffs, NOLS announced the “suspension of operations” at three of its campuses, effective beginning fall 2024. These campuses are the Pacific Northwest in Mount Vernon, Washington, the Northeast in Gabriels, New York, and the Southwest in Tucson, Arizona.

Moving forward, the entry-level wages on NOLS campuses will be reduced to $13 per hour. Several NOLS programs will be “impacted,” and in-person staff meetings and summits have been canceled in 2024 and 2025.

High Waters At Headquarters

Meanwhile, at the NOLS world headquarters in Lander, the administrative team said it’s working to stabilize its situation.

Since opening its first facility in Lander in 1965, NOLS has become one of the largest outdoor education organizations in the world and a major employer in Wyoming.

Kelli Lusk, NOLS communications director in Lander, told Cowboy State Daily that the group’s current challenges stem from several long-term factors and that the organization has been “running at a deficit” for a considerable period.

“NOLS has experienced challenging market and financial trends over the past several years,” she said. “In addition, the school has made, and continues to make, significant investments in technology and marketing to support our vision for the future. The combined effect of these factors has resulted in the school running at a deficit for the past several years.”

While three campuses are suspending operations elsewhere, all the Wyoming campuses will continue to operate and conduct NOLS programs. Cowboy State staff and employees have been mostly, but not entirely, unaffected.

“We have 130 NOLS employees in Wyoming, including 86 at the headquarters in Lander, 30 at the Rocky Mountain campus in Lander and 14 at the Three Peaks Ranch campus in Boulder,” Lusk said. “Of that total, two staff positions located at the headquarters in Lander were impacted by the reduction in force and organization restructuring.”

Just Not Sustainable

The NOLS Pacific Northwest, Northeast and Southwest campuses will close for at least two years. Lusk said it has “not been determined if the campuses will reopen after these two years.”

NOLS campuses in Driggs, Idaho, Vernal, Utah, and Palmer, Alaska, will continue operating.

“By reducing the number of campuses operating in FY25, we aim to retain and grow the number of summer expedition students and work opportunities for field faculty by consolidating our summer field operations (at the other campuses),” Lusk said.

Meanwhile, the 60 newly vacant positions “will not be filled or have been eliminated as part of the overall streamlining of operations and organizational efficiency.” Those employees are receiving severance packages and assistance looking for new jobs.

Lusk emphasized that NOLS has enough financial resilience to continue despite the gravity of the current financial situation. These changes have ushered in “a challenging period for NOLS,” but “they are crucial for continuing to serve students with leadership, wilderness medicine, and outdoor skills for future decades.”

“It is important to note that NOLS has a robust $50M endowment and strong financial reserves to weather these storms,” she said. “Still, we cannot continue to sustain operating losses in the future. This is also an opportunity for us to refocus our efforts and emerge stronger and more resilient than ever before.”

Andrew Rossi can be reached at

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Andrew Rossi

Features Reporter