October 8, 2013 Updated: October 9, 2013 at 7:46 am
What's the environmental health of the Rocky Mountain region?
If anyone holds the thermometer, it's Walt Hecox, a longtime economics professor in Colorado College's environmental program. His diagnosis: Normal temperature with a strong, but sometimes erratic, pulse.
"The region overall is healthy but increasingly being stressed by changing weather, drought and what most view as the first impacts of climate warming," he said.
A 43-year veteran of teaching at CC, Hecox has made a name for himself in both the academic world and the larger community because his work and that of his students extends far beyond the classroom.
For his commitment to environmental and policy issues, Hecox on Wednesday will receive the Stuart P. Dodge Award for lifetime achievement in conservation from the Palmer Land Trust. The organization has helped conserve more than 75,000 acres of public open space, historic ranch land and wildlife habitats in the Pikes Peak region.
The award will be presented at the Southern Colorado Conservation Awards ceremony, beginning at 5 p.m. at the Cheyenne Mountain Conference Resort.
Hecox said on Tuesday the award is humbling.
"I am honored to be recognized for the some four decades of insistence that students get out of the classroom and into the field, where experts on all sides of issues can be heard," he said, "as students search for their own solutions to conservation."
This is the fourth year the Palmer Land Trust has spotlighted an individual who has "gone above and beyond to protect Colorado's land and water resources," said Beth Byer, spokeswoman.
"This is a distinguished award that recognizes Walt as a true leader. He's unusual in that the impact he's made on the study of ecology and the economy and the influence he has had on students has really fostered a whole next generation of very aware students who want to be in the field," she said. "One of the reasons is that Walt integrates the hands-on approach into everything he does."
Hecox arrived at CC in 1970, the year the college started its innovative block plan, in which students take one course at a time, every three and a half weeks.
Such an academic schedule, he said, makes it feasible to take students on extended field trips, which has supported his teaching style of melding theory and practice by exploring the region.
"The Rockies have been and always will be resource-based - mining, timber, grazing and energy often give way to higher societal value for recreation and solitude," he said. "A balance of resource use is essential."
Among his accomplishments, Hecox founded the CC State of the Rockies Project, now in its 11th year. The goal of the student-faculty research project is to increase public understanding of the environmental issues affecting eight states of the Rocky Mountain region. The project focuses on a different topic each year, from climate change to restoration of the Colorado River Basin to this year's theme: exploring new conservation paradigms.
To study the issues, students meet with conservation experts, federal officials and private landowners. Also included are an annual speakers' series and conference, and a scientific survey to gauge public perception of the political, economic and social issues surrounding environmental conservation.
"This is ambitious for a small, private liberal arts institution, and the college is to be congratulated," Hecox said.
Three others will receive awards at Wednesday's event: Harry Talbott and Talbott Family Farms of Palisade, for preserving farm lands from oil shale development through the Mesa Land Trust; Renee Rondeau, ecologist and conservation planner at Colorado State University, who had led many statewide efforts, including the creation of the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve; and the Arkansas River Outfitters Association's Voluntary Flow Management Program, which provides water for recreation and natural habitat on the Arkansas River, while sustaining the river's flow through Pueblo and agricultural land in the Lower Arkansas Valley.