Sunday Profile: Kight retiring from forest, moving to history
vast expanse of primal wilderness…
viewed from my rocky perch atop the Crown
eyes close as I breath the past to life
see secrets these sentinel mountains guard:
rangers roaming the roaring river valley
riding from beyond the grave their horses hooves
paw at the smoky air full of fire
aware of a new age coming
replacing all but faint signs of their passage
with instant fleeting momentary messages
hurled through once empty space
filled with houses, highways and speeding steel
then for a moment I feel a shudder like thunder
from deep underfoot Earth shakes me awake
to this haunted future.
— a poem by Bill Kight
After almost four decades in land management, Bill Kight is ready for something different.
Kight, 69, will retire from his position as public information officer for White River National Forest in late April or early May and will become director of the Frontier Historical Society.
“The opportunity came along and I couldn’t pass it up,” he said. “Glenwood has a really interesting history. If you don’t preserve the fabric of your community’s history, you’re not being responsible to the people that built it.”
Although he was planning to retire in 2017 anyway, his departure remains bittersweet.
“I’m really going to miss the work,” he said. “Our motto is, ‘caring for the land and serving people.’ I feel like my career fulfilled that, and that’s pretty satisfying.”
Kight grew up in Hobbs, New Mexico, where he developed a passion for the land and its former inhabitants.
“Where I lived as a kid there were a lot of arrowheads,” he said. “I got interested in the story behind the artifacts.”
He got his undergraduate degree in anthropology while working in oil fields and potash mines during the summer. Following postgraduate work in theology, he briefly ran a storefront church.
“I’ve always been kind of service-oriented,” he said. “Perhaps I felt guilty about not going to Vietnam because of my asthma.”
He found another outlet for service when he got a temporary job with the Bureau of Land Management.
“That started me on my career,” he said.
Kight soon became involved in fighting wildfires, and worked his way up to a Type One Incident Management Team. Shortly after moving to Glenwood in 1984, he served on crews for the Yellowstone fires and the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
“You get a lot of different assignments. It’s a challenge and it’s an opportunity to get immediate results, which is rewarding,” he said. “It’s quite the learning curve and you have to build relationships fast. You try to work yourself out of a job as soon as possible and turn things back over to the locals.”
He was also a safety officer and later incident commander in the aftermath of the South Canyon Fire — better known as the Storm King Fire — which claimed the lives of 14 firefighters near Glenwood in 1994.
Kight got an opportunity to put his anthropology degree to work in 1992, when he was hired as the heritage resource manager for the White River National Forest.
“If you’re going to build anything on public land, you have to make sure that you’re not going to destroy something that’s important to the public,” he explained.
In the course of the position, he had the opportunity to participate in some exciting projects, including the discovery and investigation of 8,000-year-old human remains in an area cave. Perhaps his proudest moment was the Ute Trail Project on the Flat Tops.
“The land sort of asked me where the people that belong to me were,” he said. “I’ve discovered that if you talk to people you learn things you’ll never learn from a piece of rock.”
He made a point of involving the remaining Ute people, many of whom now reside on a reservation in eastern Utah.
“It was really a privilege to work with them,” he said. “They were skeptical, of course. They’d heard ‘I’m here to help, I’m from the government,’ before, but If you bring the right people to the table and it’s a level playing field, there really isn’t anything you can’t do. You trust the universe. If it’s important, it gets done.”
His experience with public information on fires led him to a stint as community liaison for the Aspen Sopris Ranger District and ultimately the entire forest.
“I enjoy being on the side of getting information to the public,” he said. “I try to put myself in people’s shoes. You put the facts out there and let people decide.”
Kight will have a chance to continue that with a radio show on Carbondale’s KDNK the second Tuesday of every month. Titled “For Land’s Sake,” it will feature activists, artists, authors, concerned citizens, conservationists, farmers, ranchers, recreationists and public officials and their connection to the land.
“People love this forest. They love their public lands. That’s not true everywhere,” Kight said. “It fulfills people’s idea of what public land should be. You have ski areas, you have wilderness. There’s a little bit of everything.
“The downside of that is the expectation that we can be all things to all people, and we can’t,” he added. “You have to be able to put some rules in place to protect the land, and we’re not getting what we need to do the job the public deserves.”
Despite the challenges, Kight doesn’t regret his choice of career.
“I’m thankful I’ve been able to be involved in public land management at this time in history,” he said. “There’s a huge amount of public trust with something like that, and I had to earn it. You’d have to ask the public whether I was successful.”
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