New Lake County Forest Preserve head brings international conservation experience
BY KATLYN SMITH email@example.com | @Katlyn_eSmith August 23, 2013 1:50PM
The new Lake County Forest Preserve Executive Director Alex Ty Kovach has spent nearly a decade managing private islands. One of his first tasks is steering a long-term plan for the second largest forest preserve district in the state. | Joe Cyganowski/For Sun-Times Media
Updated: September 30, 2013 6:02AM
A fresh face steering the Lake County Forest Preserve has spent nearly a decade managing remote islands, including a Caribbean getaway for royals and rock stars.
Since taking the reins of the second-largest forest preserve district in the state, new Executive Director Alex Ty Kovach has helped kick off a 50-year plan for the agency’s future. It’s expected to take shape in October, but Kovach, 52, is clear he wants more residents attuned to the district’s restoration work.
“We need to be extremely transparent — and not that we haven’t been — but even more so going forward,” the Libertyville man said. “People need to understand what we’re about and how we’re functioning.”
Kovach is known for tapping locals for major projects. In the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Kovach created a program that had court-appointed prison inmates taking on conservation.
And in Mustique, the jet-setters retreat for Prince William and Mick Jagger, he reached out to young students for the reforestation of a large field.
Kovach was the chief operations officer of a company charged with providing power, water and other sustainable services to the private island, part of St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
Kids didn’t merely plant trees.
They cultivated seeds in a nursery and stabilized soil with an “enormous mulching process,” Kovach said. He even booked lecturers for talks about the long-term impact on the local ecosystem and economy. The goal was to nurture a generation of stewards.
“It was a program that once they grabbed a hold of it, they really ran with it,” he said.
His knack for rallying a community behind sustainability appealed to forest preserve commissioners who hired Kovach in April for the $175,000-a-year post.
Faced with shrinking property tax revenues in recent years, officials say they hope to leverage Kovach’s background to attract new users to the district’s 30,000 acres, 168 miles of trails and other offerings.
He succeeds Tom Hahn, who retired after 14 years in the district.
Hahn was hired from within the district’s staff roster.
As a newcomer, Kovach can “kind of come in with new ideas and nothing preconceived,” Board President Ann Maine said.
One proposal floated for several years is moving the Lake County Discovery Museum from a Wauconda preserve to the district’s headquarters in Libertyville.
Kovach says the move would make the museum’s archives more accessible.
“It’s in a beautiful setting right now,” Kovach said. “But if you look at moving to the general offices on Winchester Road, it really makes it a centralized hub.”
He envisions the museum hosting exhibits that give visitors a behind-the-scenes look at the district’s restoration of habitats, for instance, and then takes them to a spot in the county to see the work unfold.
In other words, exhibits that blend “cultural with natural,” Kovach said.
“I don’t want that separation,” he said. “It’s really a good opportunity for us to get people in there and be part of our educational program.”
The Minnesota native joined the state’s Department of Natural Resources in the late 1980s and eventually climbed to operations manager.
Then Kovach was a consultant for ethanol production in Brazil for two years and went on to Mustique. Before the forest preserve, he managed a group of private islands off of Mozambique.
In Lake County, one of his first tasks is overseeing a strategic plan that will map out the forest preserve’s direction. Kovach says he has his sights on water quality, an issue he battled in islands suffering from “dramatic” beach erosion.
“Living for almost a decade in different places where you don’t have water or water is so valuable, and I look at the resource here, boy, we really want to stay in front of that,” he said.
He’s also eyeing ways to extend the agency’s reach.
“If we’re doing restoration work and we want to influence our neighbors around us, we’ve got to do it really well and explain why we’re doing it,” he said. “And slowly but surely, we can have a cultural change at how people look at their landscape.”