With poplar trees, a one-time Lowden farmhand makes some green


Lou Licht shows off a few of the pollution-zapping poplars that grow on his North Liberty land. - Photo by Jim Malewitz

No longer a polluter, Lou Licht aims to clean up Iowa using poplar trees.

By JIM MALEWITZ

NORTH LIBERTY – Lou Licht was once a polluter – aiding and abetting companies that spewed toxins into the air and water.

Today he could hardly be greener.

With a quick-growing, toxic-zapping tree and a patented technique, Licht cleans up the types of messes he once helped create, and he hopes to apply his work in Iowa.

“Who knew? I mean, it fell out of the sky,” Licht says, leaning back in his deck chair, coffee in hand, as the sun peaks through the thick forest of spindling trees in his yeard that shield much of his lake from view.

Topped with thin patches of still green leaves, those trees dot the landscape of the few acres in North Liberty, Iowa that Licht calls home. Green-brown, expansive and accented with birds chirping on this chilly morning in October, it’s the type of place you might expect someone who studies trees to live.

A crop of Licht's poplar trees. - photo by Jim Malewitz

Trees are Licht’s livelihood. He plants thousands each year in places like Chicago, Atlanta and St. Louis, and gets thousands of dollars to do it.

But Licht isn’t the type of in-your-face ecologist that lambastes mankind for its rape of Mother Earth. He’s a businessman who speaks of incentives and convergence. Off the top of his head, Licht could break down his revenue in dollars per tree he plants.

But why would the Air Force, or companies like Tyco or Republic Waste – the second largest disposer of garbage nationally – want Licht’s trees? Why do scientists from Australia or Italy seek advice from the guy who graduated from high school in a class of just 17 and nearly enrolled in flight attendant school (“Even wrote the check. We called it back,” he says.).

Because they save money. Lot’s of it. They help clean polluted land, air and water, and they can reduce runoff from heavy rains that cause flooding in a river-filled state like Iowa. And they treat sewage.

“In the case of Iowa, where we are surrounded by farmland, the right 15-20 acres can do all the tertiary treatment for a town of 1,000 people,” says Licht, dressed in the gray pants, a beige long-sleeved button down shirt and a black zip-up vest that a farmer might wear when he’s not tilling his field. 

The rest of Licht could help him pass for a farmer too – his round face and broad nose framed by thin-rimmed glasses, a white-gray head of hair and a body that shows signs of a slowing metabolism but an active lifestyle.

Licht’s work is “awesome,” says Kenneth Yongabi, coordinator of Phytobiotechnology Research Foundation in Cameroon. “I have no doubt about the formidable treasure this technology has for the future.”

The trees work through a process called phytoremediation that involves tree roots, swales and surrounding microbes, and they save companies money, lot’s of it, he and his environmental colleagues say.

He’s an entrepreneur with a doctorate in civil and environmental engineering from the University of Iowa. But in some ways, Licht still is like the dairy farmer he grew up as. Only now, he grows things. His crops are poplar trees that filter fine particles and formaldehyde from the air.

The trees quickly slurp up wastewater and remove the toxins from fertilizer, herbicides, spilled oil, or flushed pharmaceuticals mixed within. Or they can filter fine particles and formaldehyde from the air.

No, these aren’t mystical plants, conjured by the imagination of a British pop novelist. They’re poplars. And Licht was among the first to realize how useful they can be.

Poplar Science

In 1979, while on an alternative energy development commission in Oregon, Licht first learned about quick-growing plants that absorb sunlight and carbon and transform the molecules into bonds that release energy.

“Plants are the only significant force that reverses entropy,” he says. “It makes more organization from disorder. Everything else goes the other way.”

A view of Licht's tree-lined property in North Liberty. - Photo by Jim Malewitz

When he started teaching a senior design class at Oregon State University three years later, he wondered if poplars, which can grow quickly back from a stump, could be harvested and burned as fuel in low-income housing. Some of his students helped him explore that question and compile data.

The data showed poplars could be useful for other purposes too – like zapping pollutants. Take for example, a troublesome nitrate that washes into a river from a fertilized field:

“A poplar buffer destroyed it. It was gone,” recounts Licht excitedly, as a light breeze rustles the leaves of the poplars behind him.

As Licht began to realize the power of these trees, he went back to school to pursue a doctoral degree and immerse himself in all things poplar. And at the University of Iowa, he was able to patent his cleanup process.

In 1990, Licht went back to Oregon and presented some of his research to an engineering firm. He left with a signed contract to plant three acres of trees that would cleanup a landfill cap in Beaverton, Oregon.

Once home, he incorporated his company. Ecolotree, Licht called it, which rhymes with “ecology.”

Since then, Ecolotree has designed, planted and maintained poplar forests for a slew of companies looking to clean up toxic sites.

The process starts when Licht’s crews prepare the soil for the trees’ survival and sculpt the land, sometimes into a bowl around the poplars, so that all the water passes by their roots.

“In many of these instances, a shallow plume can be intercepted by the installation of a poplar forest to extract the impacted groundwater,” says William Schubert, group disposal director for Waste Management, who worked with Licht on two projects in Illinois.

In 1994, the American Consulting Engineers Council named Ecolotree’s landfill leachate management project one of the 25 most innovative and valuable projects in the country.

Really, who knew?

A growing field

Inside Licht’s dark wood-colored kitchen, a cauldron of soup bubbles on the stove and boxes cover the counter. Some boxes are unpacked and others still filled with goodies from a four-week European tour that Licht and his wife returned from days before.

The trip was a mixture of business and pleasure that included an international phyto conference. The conference was refreshing, Licht says, because it showed that phyto is still gaining steam as a legitimate solution to messy environmental problems.

But advocates for the technology still lament the obstacles that prevent the field going mainstream – mainly the reluctance of regulators to permit his projects.

Little surprise for a guy who researches trees: Licht's home office is made of wood. - Photo by Jim Malewitz

Licht says the success of his projects speak for themselves – like the land in Slovenia where an oil refinery stood years before. Now it’s an 18-hole golf course, still lines with some of the trees Licht planted there.

On site of an ongoing project in the Puget Sound, he tried to assure his client by making the process sound simple.

“Every drop of water passes within an inch of a root,” he would repeat.

Those roots and microbes – the tiny organisms that live around them – breakdown pollutants like pathogens, ammonia, or pharmaceuticals.

Now Licht breaks it down in even simpler terms: “Your gut will break it down, so will a microbe.”

Licht says it has also been a challenge to get farmers on board with his work. And especially in places like Iowa, where pesticides and fertilizer flow freely into rivers, accounting for most of the state’s water pollution, there’s a large need for what he does.

But it makes sense that farmers aren’t interested in his poplars, he says. They have no incentive. Improved water quality doesn’t increase yields.

Pragmatism from a ‘checkered’ past

That’s what separates Licht from the stereotypical environmentalist. To him, cleaning up the environment isn’t a moral issue, “it just makes sense.”

“We’re not carrying signs because we’re afraid, Licht says. “We’re still carrying signs because we think this is an unsustainable place to live.”

Licht knows about what’s not sustainable because he used to make a living aiding and abetting the typical foes of conservationists. As a dairy farmer, he shoveled manure onto the snow that he knew would wash into Iowa’s waterways. Later, we worked with several large chemical firms.

But he and his colleagues weren’t evil, he says. They just didn’t know there were better ways to operate.

Licht didn’t become environmentally conscious until about 1970 after the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts became law.

Then, while working at the largest cellophane plant in the world, he finally noticed what it was putting into the Mississippi River.

“It was pretty rasty,” he says.

On April 22, 1970, Licht wore a black armband to commemorate the first Earth Day. He says it lasted “about 12 nanoseconds,” before his boss made him take it off.

After Licht learned that companies paid millions of dollars to clean up their messes, he decided to look for a way that would incentivize environmental friendliness. Flash forward almost three decades, and “little Ecolotree has been busy,” he says.

In 2009, the company had its best year, completing 17 projects in eleven states. But despite this success, Licht has kept Ecolotree small. Still, he remains its only full time employee.

Licht says he prefers to run a small company that minimizes risk. Ecolotree has no stockholders and no expectation for a return on investment. He’s able to turn down some 40 percent of clients whose projects might be impossible to complete. Licht has even fired difficult clients. His style might be “anti-American business,” Licht says, but that’s what he prefers: stress-free simplicity.

“It’s good for the soul,” he says, again sounding like a farmer.

But of course, Licht closed that manure-filled chapter of his life long ago and has no plans to reopen it. And really, that’s all that matters to him, he says.

“Every day you wake up and don’t have to milk cows is a good day.”

This article is part of a series about new ecological technologies in Iowa. Read more:


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