The Don Aldrich Award

Ellen Knight - 1994

Ellen Knight
Ellen Knight

At a time when the environmental movement in Montana was mostly led by men, Ellen Knight arrived with the passion and commitment to get things done for her community and the land through education, fundraising, and collaboration.

Ellen was born in Fort Smith, Arkansas, where she found adventure and solace in the rural fields and forests. She attended Colorado College for her undergraduate degree, then earned her Master’s in environmental education at the University of Michigan. Her graduate thesis focused on the Huron Clinton River Park Association in Ann Arbor, and her knowledge would be put to use when she and her husband Bob arrived in Missoula in 1971. As Montana adopted a constitution and several laws focused on environmental conservation, the Missoula community was organizing to address degraded parts of the local watershed – where five valleys came together. Along with other like-minded citizens, Ellen and Bob formed the Five Valleys River Park Association (later Five Valleys Land Trust) which created many river parks and protected open lands.

Ellen joined (and later served as president to) the Missoula League of Women Voters, where she and other members–including members of GASP (Gals Against Smog and Pollution)–focused on local air and water quality, and energy planning. She pushed the Missoula County commissioners to open their meetings and gave League testimony before the commission and city council. Later she spent 19 years representing the Montana League on critical regional energy issues.

Ellen volunteered with the early Montana Natural History Center, when it was just a tiny space on the UM campus. Today the Center has its own building for its mission of promoting and cultivating the appreciation, understanding and stewardship of nature through education. And the Center’s Ellen Knight Sense of Wonder Classroom honors Ellen’s enthusiasm and volunteer work with the Center.

One of Ellen’s most successful projects was her campaign to protect Rock Creek, a vital tributary to the Clark Fork River. When the Rock Creek Trust, formerly the Rock Creek Advisory Council, hired her to be executive director in 1991, she wasted no time, enlisting landowners, nonprofits, and government agencies in raising $1.5 million to protect the watershed. Thanks to her leadership, 13.5 miles of stream frontage and over 10,000 acres of Rock Creek watershed were protected. Her efforts earned her the Cinnabar Foundation’s Len and Sandy Sargent Stewardship Award in 2001 and Missoula Conservation Roundtable’s Don Aldrich Award in 1994, notably the first woman to receive the latter.

Since retirement, Ellen has contributed Field Notes on Montana Public Radio where she shares lessons learned and the joys of human interaction with the natural world. Her love for the natural world, demonstrated throughout her life, has led to the conservation of some of Missoula’s most loved places.

By Kalle Fox

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