The Don Aldrich Award
Ron Erickson - 2004
A pioneer in interweaving academics, civics and politics in Montana, Ron Erickson is a household name in Montana’s environmental community. Born in Peoria, Illinois, he earned his PhD in Chemistry at the University of Iowa where he met his wife Nancy, renowned artist and environmental activist. In 1965 they moved to Missoula where Ron served as a professor of Chemistry at the University of Montana while Nancy pursued an MFA and MA.
At a time when Missoula’s air quality was suffering from a large pulp mill and open burning of wood waste, Ron witnessed the impacts of pollution around his home and began applying his expertise to these eco-civic challenges. Ron and his University colleagues organized Western Montana Scientists Committee for Public Information (MWMSCPI).
In a time when environmental academics were largely focused on science, he was one of the few to insist that humanities were an essential part of environmental studies. In 1970, Ron and the late Clancy Gordon were among the founders of the Environmental Studies program at the University of Montana. Ron served as program director from 1976 to 1984 and continued to serve as a faculty member until 1998. Many of Ron’s students have continued his legacy, serving in the Montana Senate and House, becoming professors themselves, working in state and local Health Departments as air and water pollution experts, and leaders of non-profits like Women’s Voices for the Earth and the Sierra Club.
Through the years, Ron’s academic work intersected with environmental activism. In 1973, he helped organize the Concerned Citizens for a Quality Environment (CCQE) to pursue legal action against the expansion of the Hoerner-Waldorf pulp mill.
Ron served on the Montana Environmental Information Center’s first board (1974 to 1975) and served again from 1986 to 1989.
He served as vice chairman for Save the Fort, a grassroots campaign that worked to prevent that historic site from turning into housing development.
In the 90s, he got involved in Missoula’s Open Space program, first serving on the Advisory Committee, then as a chairperson. He played a critical role in the purchase of Mount Jumbo from private landowners, one of the most successful outcomes of the OS program’s history. As a result, Jumbo was spared from ongoing commercial and residential development and protected for outdoor recreation and wildlife.
Ron’s community service included the political sphere – he served in the Montana House of Representatives (1999 to 2005 and 2007 to 2008) and then in the State Senate (2009 to 2013). To Ron, one of his greatest accomplishments in the legislature was passing a bill that prevented corporations from avoiding their Montana taxes by hiding their profits overseas.
Missoula’s quality of life and UM’s outstanding role in environmental history owe much to trailblazers like Ron and his students and colleagues.
by Kalle Fox (EVST MS 2022)