A new breed of academic at Colorado State

  • Rick Knight

    Heather Knight

Note: this story is one of several feature articles in a special issue about the West's forestry schools.

Fort Collins, Colo.- At 6:38 a.m., Rick Knight is happily installed in his campus office, propelling himself about at high velocity on a chair with well-greased rollers. He drums out memos on his computer, organizes slides for a talk on golden eagles and flips through a book by Aldo Leopold looking for passages to read in class.

The associate professor of wildlife biology at Colorado State University in Fort Collins has been up for four hours. Or maybe it's more accurate to say he has been surging about for four hours, walking his dogs around the ranch he and his wife bought a year ago and leafing through some of the books in his voluminous library.

Since his arrival at Colorado State in 1987 from a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Washington, Knight has used his inexhaustable energy to push for change. He has been a spark plug in numerous campus innovations, from the development of a course on biodiversity to the computer-indexing of the state's 80 scattered biological collections. He helped form the Institute of Environmental Natural Resource Policy, which links university research to policy formation. He co-taught a graduate course last fall in which students were charged with convening a jury of randomly selected citizens and then selecting experts on opposing sides of a land management issue to make informed presentations. Based on the presentations, the jury came up with a recommendation for resource managers. He has organized colloquia on everything from water in the West to the role of land-grant universities. He urged the abolition of some old courses, consolidation of others and the creation of entirely new ones.

He plunged in, never waiting for the right moment. "He is politically naive," says Rick Laven, a professor in the Department of Forest Sciences. "But he won't pull his punches. He's willing to lay it on the line, to float it, to put it all out there. He, more than anyone in our college, has heartfelt convictions about the field he works in."

Those convictions can be traced to the summer after his freshman year at Iowa State University, when this Maryland native went to Nebraska and North Dakota to study bison on a grant from the National Science Foundation.

"I spent the whole summer studying the old bulls kicked out of the herd. For 10 days at a time I had my binoculars, my backpack and I followed the old bulls and then I would come in for two days so I could get cleaned up and get more food. And that summer I saw my first wild horses, I saw Western sunsets and Western sunrises and it was just me and wild land and almost the entire charismatic megafauna. It was pretty much still intact. The pronghorn, the buffalo, the mule deer, the bobcat, the wild horses, golden eagles, prairie falcons. I just fell in love with the West.

"That was an incredible summer for me. I was dating a Sioux Indian woman, I started riding bulls in rodeos, I slept in teepees, I captured my first rattlesnake, I climbed into my first golden eagle nest. You know I had all the experiences that any 18-year-old kid would just go nuts over. I immersed myself in Western natural and human history."

That love of the West is as unabashed now as it's ever been in a scientist who is also working to rehabilitate his overgrazed 140-acre tract of ranchland half an hour from Fort Collins. At home and at work, his gospel is this: Westerners should work together to maintain healthy land and biodiversity. He also believes that conserving the beauty of the Western landscape depends on the survival of large ranches, which can be safe havens for biodiversity. "Thirty-five acre ranchettes and trophy homes are not the answer, they are the problem," he says.

In some places all this energy might have hit a wall of concrete. Yet Knight's prodding has been welcomed by a university administration led by President Al Yates, who has urged his faculty to become more relevant and to change what some considered CSU's image as "the best-kept secret in Colorado."

"They promoted me early and tenured me early," says Knight. "The people in the College of Natural Resources are as big-hearted a group of people as you could find anywhere."

Alan Covich, head of the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife Biology, calls Knight "astounding. The guy is extremely productive and he is thorough and conscientious about follow through." A grin creeps across Covich's face as he continues, "And I would say Rick keeps me fully informed. I have four file folders of Rick Knight memos. I have met a lot of people off campus who have never met Rick, but they have gotten a memo from him."

George Wallace, an associate professor in the Department of Natural Resource Recreation and Tourism and a close friend, considers Knight unusual because he goes out of his way to talk with other faculty. "He believes in an interdisciplinary approach." If Knight has an idea to share or a compliment to pay, he drops by and sees his dean, he knocks on his department head's door and even pursues the president of the university through the lunch room.

"He has not lost his authentic interest and enthusiasm for the issues that should drive a university," says Wallace. "He elevates the energy of other people. He has definitely made it (the College of Natural Resources) a different place."

The day started long before dawn, but at 5 p.m. Knight is still at full throttle. He rifles through files, grabs a ringing phone, finishes off another memo, and strides through the hall as students form small eddies in his wake.

Back in the office, he says: "Let me read you this one quote. It is really one of my favorites," he says and rolls quickly to his bookcase. Alas, the book is missing. For a moment he is silenced. Then he is flabbergasted. "I can't believe it. I loaned it to a student. They know how I feel about these books. Books have been my rudder in life." After a quick recovery, he dials a graduate student on the floor below and moments later the young man arrives with his own copy of Aldo Leopold's writings. Knight is delighted.

Then he reads:

  " 'We end I think at what might be called the standard paradox of the twentieth century: Our tools are better than we are, and grow faster than we do. They suffice to crack the atom, to command the tides. But they do not suffice for the oldest task in human history: to live on a piece of land without spoiling it.' "

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