Profiles in Conservation

Finding his natural path to the oaks

By Glenn Rosenholm

Matthew Ueltzen is a walking, talking recruiting poster for his chosen profession of restoration ecologist. He loves his work and can’t really think of anything else he’d rather do.

Ueltzen works for the Lake County Forest Preserves District in Illinois and spends his days overseeing their reforestation program, planting oaks and other species to restore and recreate oak habitat. He has been with the organization for about 16 years. He often collaborates with other similar conservation and community agencies, including Chicago Wilderness.

“Chicago Wilderness is a big organization. It is a consortium of organizations stretching from southern Wisconsin to parts of Illinois, Michigan, and northwest Indiana,” he said.

According to its Web site, Chicago Wilderness is a regional alliance of 260 organizations working together to restore and revitalize important ecosystems throughout much of the northern Midwest. They’ve been working together and building their alliance for more than 20 years. Chicago Wilderness’ major focus areas include these:

Morton Arboretum, part of Chicago Wilderness, is also interested in oak ecosystem recovery, said Ueltzen.  

“They and the Lake County Forest Preserves have authored a Regional Oak Ecosystem Recovery Plan and have even persuaded the State of Illinois to declare October ‘OAKtober.’”

“I participate in one of the working groups for Chicago Wilderness and Chicago Region Trees Initiative,” he said. He is part of the Trees and Green Infrastructure committee, concerned with oak awareness, health, and recovery.

As a restoration ecologist, Ueltzen tries to determine the plant species that were at the site before settlement and to restore that plant community to the original conditions. This includes natural hydrology and earlier fire conditions.

“Everything I do is green minded,” he said. “I’m involved in a lot of tree planting and restoration projects throughout Lake County. I do that as a daily job. These are annual programs.”

Green roots

The roots to his current state started out many years earlier.

“I grew up in a suburb of Chicago, a very urban area,” he said. “I spent a lot of time outdoors and was in Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts.” While scouting taught him a lot about surviving outdoors, he was inspired in part for his environmental line of work by, of all things, TV programming.

“I grew up watching the nature programs on TV, like Mutual of Omaha’s “Wild Kingdom,’ as well as “Wild America.’ They helped to instill a big sense of who I am. I had an interest in the natural world at a very young age.” Ueltzen said he and a bunch of friends even got in the car one day during high school vacation and went to Alaska for the summer.

They traveled from Chicago to Alaska, making stops in Fairbanks, the Arctic Circle, Denali National Park, Kenai Fjords National Park, Anchorage, and Glacier Bay National Park, he said. 

“In total we drove 10,600 miles in almost 5 weeks.”

The immense size of the parks and preserves and the great opportunities to see truly “wild” wildlife really impressed him, he said.  Visiting wilderness areas with intact predator-prey interactions was also a memorable experience.

As a teenager, despite not having a clue as to what he wanted to do in life, his path to his current profession came quite naturally for him. Like so many young people, the teenage Ueltzen did not have a strong sense of direction of which job field to focus on, though he had an affinity for the natural world.

“When I was in high school, I didn’t have a great plan for where I was going to end up, but I saw this program at Iowa State in animal ecology,” he added. The curriculum focused on fisheries and wildlife biology. Ueltzen’s interest was in the wildlife aspect.  Students graduating with a degree in animal ecology could find careers such as park rangers, biologists, ecologists, and natural resource technicians.

That was it; he was hooked.

After graduating from Iowa State with a B.S. in Animal Ecology in 1997, Ueltzen found an entry-level position in his job field.

“I worked as a seasonal employee in several different positions in the Chicago area. All were generally related to conservation, and I even did some park maintenance work at Illinois Department of Natural Resources (Volo Bog) and McHenry County Conservation District. Then I spent time with the National Park Service at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore,” he said.

For 2 years, Ueltzen worked as a biological sciences technician, helping to restore wetlands within the National Lakeshore, monitoring threatened and endangered species, participating in prescribed burns, and controlling invasive species.

“Working in those diverse areas gave me an appreciation for the diversity and habitats we have in the Chicago Wilderness region. I worked with the botanist at the National Lakeshore, and he inspired me to learn more about plants, especially sedges.” Sedges are part of the Cyperaceae family of plants. They look something like wild grasses and grow in wet soils or near bodies of water.

Restoring natural areas

Ueltzen said his position at the Lake County Forest Preserves has changed a few times over the years. He started as a technician on the natural resource crew, and then became the crew leader. He has now served for 6 years as a restoration ecologist.

Ueltzen received a master’s degree in biology from Northeastern Illinois University in 2006.

“One of the big problems we face in this part of the country is invasive species,” he said. “European buckthorn, a small tree or shrub, is displacing a lot of native trees and plants here.” He recently became leader of a team that’s working together to eradicate the buckthorn infestation in their area.

“It’s still early on, but it’s a doable, interesting project,” Ueltzen added.

When asked about whether greener cities positively impact people, he gave a personal perspective.

“It’s better for me. Looking at communities that are adjacent to some of our preserves, they are places that I would like to live. I have a love of the outdoors. They’re scenic and natural,” he said.

He said much of his team’s work takes place in natural areas, away from the public eye, so there is not much public interaction.

“We provide green and open space for recreation, wildlife, for learning about plants, and experiencing nature. We’re not always interacting with the public all of the time. The vast majority of their feedback is very, very positive, though.”

A passion for natural land

Just as in his childhood, Ueltzen lives in an urban setting today.

“I think it makes me appreciate greener spaces even more, living in the urban community,” he added.

He said his childhood dream job was to work someday for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or National Park Service.

“Even today, I take my family on vacations to national parks,” he added.

In the past 5 years alone, Ueltzen and his family have visited Zion, Everglades, Glacier, Badlands, Bryce Canyon, Great Smoky Mountains, Mammoth Cave, Jewel Cave, and Wind Cave National Parks, Pictured Rocks and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshores, as well as many other historical sites and State parks. Later this year he plans to visit the New River Gorge area in West Virginia and is making plans for a Yellowstone-Grand Tetons trip with several other families in 2017.

He is married to his wife, Vanessa; they have two children together—Emma, age 14, and Tim, age 11.

After all these years, Ueltzen still finds a great deal of satisfaction in the positive outcomes of his work.

“I get a lot of fulfillment when we acquire a new piece of property, such as farmland, and seeing it restored over time to native prairies, savannas, and woodlands. It takes several years to see the transformation.”

“Twenty years from now, I’d like the places I work on to be functional ecosystems. Not just restoring them from a degraded to a natural state, but to have them again be vibrant, diverse habitats. It is its own motivation. My line of work seems completely natural to me. I’m about a 9 out of 10 for satisfaction in my line of work.”

Ueltzen said he is fortunate to be surrounded in his job by people of similar values.

“Our team is very similar minded people. We’re motivated by the same things and driven to do high-quality restoration projects. We are very dedicated people.”

For more information about the Lake County Forest Preserves, visit their Web site at http://www.lcfpd.org/conservation/.

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