By Kim Mikus
Daily Herald Correspondent
An interview with Matt Ueltzen, a restoration ecologist at the Lake County Forest Preserves.
Hometown: Oak Park
Q: Tell us a little bit about your role at the Lake County Forest Preserves.
A: I started here in 2000 as a natural resource technician and was promoted to crew chief in 2006. About nine years ago, I joined what is now the natural resource department.
I manage the forest preserve's farm management and reforestation programs, and I serve on workgroups/boards, including: the North Branch Chicago River Watershed Workgroup; Chicago Wilderness' Excellence in Ecological Restoration Program; and the Chicago Region Trees Initiative.
Q: Tell us a little background about yourself.
A: I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and was always interested in the outdoors and wildlife. Both my parents are teachers, and we spent a couple of weeks each summer traveling, usually to national parks.
I was involved in an active Boy Scout troop. We went camping every month, including a weeklong trip each summer. I attended Iowa State University and majored in animal ecology to continue my interest in the outdoors, wildlife and habitat management.
As part of the animal ecology program, students were required to obtain practical work experience. I found employment as a maintenance worker at Volo Bog State Natural Area and then took a seasonal position at McHenry County Conservation District where I was tasked with clearing invasive brush and trees, and prescribed burning. I gained additional experience in wetland restoration, rare plant monitoring, and invasive species control with the National Park Service at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore before joining the Lake County Forest Preserves 19 years ago.
Q: What do you enjoy about your job?
A: Working with a talented and dedicated group of people in our department, and our agency as a whole.
Q: How did you become interested in this type of work?
A: I don't remember a specific time when I became interested. I think this interest and passion has been there all along. As I kid, I always enjoyed being outside, playing in the dirt, helping tend to our family's garden, flowers and animals.
In school, I did well in science classes and struggled with what to study in college, debating between engineering and ecology. I realized that finding employment down the ecology road would be more difficult, but that it really was my passion. Ultimately, I made this choice my senior year in high school and haven't really looked back since.
Q: What are two interesting facts about the forest preserves that people may not know.
A: When many forest preserves were acquired, there were few areas with standing water because farmers had drained the land with drain tiles for agriculture. Our ecologists remove the tiles to restore a natural flow of water across the land. One of the projects that I've been working on is mapping all the drain tiles on forest preserve land. This was just completed and discovered that we have more than 70 miles of drain tiles; a great opportunity for future wetland restoration.
And Lake County has the greatest abundance of northern flatwoods in our region. Flatwoods contain many rare plants and are used by our native salamanders and frogs. This habitat is essentially "unique" to Lake County.
Q: Buckthorn eradication is one of your missions and a focus for the forest preserves. Tell us what that is.
A: Buckthorn is a nonnative shrub that has invaded large portions of North America. It grows quickly and in very dense thickets, out-competing native vegetation. This plant alters soil properties, increases erosion potential, and impacts wildlife in many ways -- changing species presence and abundance, reducing bird nesting success, and decimating amphibian populations.
Lake County Forest Preserves and other area land management agencies have known about these impacts for a long time and have been actively working to remove buckthorn from our natural areas.
In recent years we have come to see this not only as a forest preserve problem, but an issue that impacts the entire county and region. We may be able to control some buckthorn populations on forest preserve land, but we will constantly be impacted by the influx of seeds, spread by birds, from neighboring property. We realized that we need to reach across property and political boundaries to engage other land owners and inspire action outside of the preserves.
Our natural resource and public affairs teams have partnered on this campaign. I am currently working with colleagues and other local agencies on the lands surrounding Middlefork Savanna to eradicate buckthorn from a 2,900-acre area.
Q: Why is it important?
A: Buckthorn is erasing the legacy of what is/was Lake County and the region. We are at risk of losing plant and wildlife species due to this invasion. Oak ecosystems, which form the backbone of much of our native diversity, are being significantly impacted.
Q: What words describe you best?
A: Dedicated, detailed, fun and open-minded
Q: Do you have a favorite forest preserve?
A: Middlefork Savanna in Lake Forest. I have spent a lot of time working on restoration projects at this site. It has rich plant and animal diversity, and beautiful native remnant areas.
Q: What do you like to do in your free time?
A: What is free time? We have two kids, a senior and freshman in high school. We spend a lot of time attending their events. I also enjoy camping with friends and family, traveling, sitting on a beach, and hiking.
Q: Who is your mentor?
A: I don't have just one. I have been mentored and inspired by numerous people in my life: my grandfather who took me fishing; my teachers/professors in high school and college (Dave Grim, Dr. James Dinsmore) who encouraged my passion for this field; Tony LaValle at Volo Bog State Natural Area who taught me about hard work and having fun at the same time; John Peters at McHenry County Conservation District for his calm demeanor, and Dan Mason at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore for taking the time to help me learn about sedges. And here at the Forest Preserves, I have worked closely with restoration ecologists Deb Maurer (now with The Nature Conservancy) and Ken Klick on numerous projects and have grown immensely because of my working relationship with them
• Kim Mikus is a communications specialist for the Lake County Forest Preserves. She writes a bimonthly column about various aspects of the preserves. Contact her with ideas or questions at kmikuscroke@LCFPD.org. Connect with the Lake County Forest Preserves on social media @LCFPD.