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Putting her back into it

Margaret Kuchenreuther

Margaret Kuchenreuther is a planner.

Since moving to Morris in 1991 to take a job teaching biology at the University of Minnesota, Morris, Kuchenreuther has volunteered with groups and organizations working to build a long-term plan for the community.

This month, Kuchenreuther, associate professor of biology, was recognized for her long-term commitment to community engagement as the only University of Minnesota faculty member to receive the 2012 University of Minnesota Outstanding Community Service Award (OCSA).

Kuchenreuther is the first Morris faculty member to be recognized with this award, which was established in 1999 to recognize University of Minnesota community members who have "devoted their time and talent to make substantial, enduring contributions to the community and to improving public life and the well being of society."

Kuchenreuther, who said she was "flattered to be nominated and astounded to be chosen," believes she was nominated for "putting my back into it over the long haul," supporting many of the good projects and initiatives in the community.

"I do a lot in the community, but it's not like I've got one accomplishment you can look at and say, 'Margaret did that.' ... I have a propensity to say yes when asked to serve or lead, and I get called on pretty often to do that," she said.

Those who nominated Kuchenreuther recognized work protecting local habitats and embodying the activities and mission of Morris as a leader in sustainable energy and green living. In recognizing her for the award, the committee noted that Kuchenreuther has contributed "her time and expertise in ecology, botany and conservation biology to build a strong, sustainable community that is healthy for its human and non-human members."

Kuchenreuther arrived in Morris in 1991 to begin work at UMM and almost immediately began to work as a volunteer at the Pomme de Terre Food Co-op, and has remained active as a volunteer, board member and board chairperson ever since.

"That business has really struggled, but I think it's now transforming into a pretty vibrant little business that has always been there as an advocate for organic food, lack-of-packaging in food, healthy eating, all that sort of thing," said Kuchenreuther.

Kuchenreuther has also been active in city governance, joining the Planning Commission in 1997 after a "bad juxtaposition of uses" threatened to place a gravel pit next to a new housing development near the Mill Dam Road.

During her time as part of the Commission, Kuchenreuther has helped lead an effort to re-zone the city and the half-mile district around the city and, with the help of other members of the committee, make the Planning Commission a more forward-looking city group.

"When I first joined the Planning Commission I felt like all the Planning Commission did was react," said Kuchenreuther. "There was very little thinking about the future. ... I think we have adopted the position that we need to really be proactive. We need to try to plan."

Part of Kuchenreuther's interest in remaining on the Planning Commission, which she has chaired since 2006, is being able to bring her expertise as a conservation biologist to the table.

When the high school and elementary school buildings were built, Kuchenreuther pushed for the landscaping plan to avoid using ash trees, anticipating the serious threat emerald ash borer would eventually prove to be.

"That's not a big thing, but if you do it for 20 years it sort of adds up," said Kuchenreuther. She has also pushed for smart storm water management and dark-sky compliant lighting in new developments.

"I really think that people in Morris deserve the right to see the stars; that should be one of the amenities of living in a small town," she said.

Kuchenreuther is a member of the West Central Research and Outreach Horticulture Advisory Board, and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Commissioner's Advisory Committee on Scientific and Natural Areas, which is charged to work with DNR staff to think about the acquisition and management of natural areas in Minnesota, including prairie restoration and management.

She also leads interpretive talks at local natural areas, appears on Pioneer Public Television to share her botanical expertise, and conducts tours of her "lakescaped" backyard on Lake Crystal.

"I've just been a constant provided of environmental education for the general public," said Kuchenreuther, a callback to her first job as an interpretive naturalist in Iowa.

Kuchenreuther has always been an environmental activist, who's research has consistently been applied rather than theoretical. She received her M.S. in botany from the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, and her Ph.D. in botany from the University of Wisconsin, Madison in 1991.

Here in Morris, Kuchenreuther works primarily on the preservation of existing prairie and the recreation of the prairie landscape, while teaching classes in ecology and conservation biology.

"I'm very concerned about the loss of native species because I value them," said Kuchenreuther. "My definition of community extends beyond the human. I believe that all living things are part of my community, and I strive in my life and my work - whether it's my research or my teaching - to do things that benefit that broad community."