Restoring the Natural Environment

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Growing up on a farm in Iowa, you learn to get the work done.

That lesson has stayed with Lou Licht (PhD CEE 1990) throughout his academic career and well into a very successful business career as founder and owner of Ecolotree, Inc., an Iowa-based engineering company.

Iowa Engineer recently spoke with Licht about farm values and his business as he was stopped along I-80, just east of Iowa City, while beginning a four-day trip to visit five of his project sites in the eastern United States, from Illinois to New York.

What Ecolotree says about itself on its web site is straightforward. The company designs, installs and maintains engineered forests at regulatory-permitted sites, such as landfills, chemical spill sites, can clean up wastewater. Also, the poplar tree can cope with salt and drought due to the microbes it supports.

Back on I-80, Licht was describing his itinerary.

“There is the tree-planted cover for a landfill near Columbus, Ohio, a project where I employ five Iowans using poplars harvested from my Lowden, Iowa, nursery.

At a project for the U.S. Air Force, near Champaign, Ill., trees are planted around a closed air base. In New York, I’m using poplars planted eight feet deep to clean up leaking solvent at a consumer electronics plant.

In large part, Licht was glad to be on the road because of the activity and excitement the fall season brings to his line of work.

“It’s that time of year for planting trees, and everyone and wastewater treatment sites. The process of planting certain types of trees and using their root systems to filter and clean polluted water is called phytoremediation.

Ecolotree is the oldest and most experienced U.S. company of its kind, with more than 110 U.S. sites and one in Europe. Clients include large landfill companies, the Navy, NASA, and Fortune 100 companies.

Ecolotree sounds simple when Licht describes it.

“When speaking to a Rotary Club, I tell them that I’m going to repeat what they learned in kindergarten, but I’m just going to tell it to them in a different way,” Licht says.  “That means explaining that plants can deal with most toxins, and, not surprisingly, use water and nitrogen. What is surprising is that a plant root gets rolling. We wait for trees to go dormant so that we can safely transplant them,” he says. “We expect a 99 percent survival rate.”

Although Ecolotree has trees planted in 32 states, the bulk of its work is located either east of the Mississippi River or in the Pacific Northwest. In fact, the company’s biggest project is in Port of Morrow, an industrial park in Boardman, Oregon, about 200 miles east of Portland.

It treats five million gallons of water per day—a volume equivalent to the flow of a community of 40,000 people.

Phytoremediation, in which water passing by microbes next to the roots of 500 acres of established poplar trees, filters and cleans the water.
Also at Port of Morrow, plans call for a cellulosic ethanol plant under construction to harvest poplars--which regenerate from stumps--as a feedstock every two years.

Because Ecolotree needs to treat wastewater nitrogen at the site in winter, the company has teamed up with the UI College of Engineering to determine whether 500 acres of poplars can be irrigated during the winter so the poplars can continue their work. Craig Just, UI assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering and assistant faculty research engineer at IIHR Hydroscience & Engineering, is collaborating on the project and his graduate student, Hayden Ausland, contributed by planting 10 acres of poplar trees.

Back on I-80, Licht explains that he is Ecolotree’s engineer, CEO and planner in what is virtually a one-man, year-round operation, hiring labor and specialty services when needed. But next year may be different.

“I plan to expand my staff next year because I need more engineering and installation support,” he says. “I already have a part-time agronomist and several other workers. This can be an opportunity for new engineers from the state of Iowa.”

Then he offers: “Do you want to know my formula for success?”

“First, find a niche market that you have a passion for, in a field that can create value. Next, do good work and create a product or service people like. That’s how you build a company.

“Also, keep it (the business) small and keep it all. And stay connected to the science involved.”

A big part of his formula for success, he says, is to begin with transplanted Iowa farm values.

“I grew up on a farm near Lowden, Iowa, not too far from West Branch,” he says. “Our farm was truly a family farm and Lowden’s culture was a family farm culture. We had dairy cows, cattle, hogs, chickens, corn, soybeans and hay. We shared the labor with our neighbors, and were conscious of costs. That meant in a good year, we paid off debt and in a bad year, we spent less. We persevered.

“We were in 4H, Cub Scouts and church groups. When you’re in the farm culture, you think the whole world lives like this—with abundance and with chores to do. And you learn to be a closer, to get that last load of hay baled ‘cause the storm’s a-comin’.’”

“Today, some of the Ecolotree sites I visit are large, multi-acre sites. There is a sense of accomplishment when all your projects show up on Google maps, and all began as a glimmer of an idea.”

Licht’s academic career began with an inspirational high school visit by a university engineering professor. As luck would have it, he would become a classmate of current UI professor Jerry Schnoor and earn a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering. Next, he worked for E.I. DuPont, helped make Charmin toilet tissue at Proctor and Gamble, and earned a master’s degree in agricultural engineering—in particular, manure and waste management--at Oregon State University.

During seven years spent at environmental and consulting firm CH2M HILL, he developed his “fuzzy concept” of using tree roots to control pollution.

Then, a phone call to Jerry Schnoor at UI brought him back to the Midwest. “With the goal of earning a doctorate before the age of 40, I talked to eight other universities, but fortunately spent one hour speaking with Jerry Schnoor in December of 1985.

Why Iowa?

“When I was at Oregon State in Corvallis, I began to think, ‘Boy, that Iowa, what a fertile place.’ I never would have thought about coming back to Iowa. But after 10 years, I was married and had a young family. When I went to choose a graduate school, I appreciated the freedom and support that Jerry Schnoor would give me. The UI was it. It was the school that finally made it possible for me to move back to Iowa.”

“By living and working in Iowa, I’m within a one-day drive of 40 million people. And the people I work with and for have that great Iowa public education and work ethic,” he says. “For anyone with children, there are the great Iowa public schools.

"You could say it’s the luck of the draw, but Iowa just never stops giving. So it’s easy to move back and give back to Iowa.”Looking forward, Licht sees continued growth.

“Ecolotree is going to survive,” he says. “Through word of mouth, research and planting of trees, the goal is to make what Ecolotree does commonplace in the business world. In the past,phytoremediation was what people did after other pollution remediation efforts had been tried.

“Today, there are many reasons to try phytoremediation first. It is compatible with wildlife habitat, landscape restoration, and recycling of natural resources.”

Ecolotree won’t be the only item on Licht’s plate in 2013, as he intends to resume farming.

“I own my dad’s farm,” he says. “During the coming year, I’ll let my renter go, and I’m going to farm it—make all the decisions, pay all the bills—just to understand what it means to be a farmer again. It’s one of the things that keep me connected to Iowa.”

He adds that when it comes to dealing with work at his engineering company and on the farm, the answer will be the same: “Get it done.”