ALEXANDRIA, Minn. -- Dave Nomsen moved to Alexandria in 1992 after growing up in Iowa where his father was the chief pheasant biologist for what is now the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.
Nomsen followed his father’s conservation lead as he went on to receive his master’s degree in wildlife management from South Dakota State University.
Nomsen’s career put him front and center as a leading voice for conservation efforts for nearly three decades. He was hired as a wildlife biologist for Minnesota by Pheasants Forever & Quail Forever in 1992. Within a year, he became the organization’s voice on Capitol Hill where he worked to help get conservation policy funded as part of the federal farm bills in 1996, 2002, 2008, 2014 and 2018. Since 1999, Nomsen has also served on the North American Wetlands Conservation Act Council, a small group that recommends funding for wetlands restoration and protection projects in Canada, the United States and Mexico.
The conservation portion of the federal farm bill affects many programs that support farmer’s efforts to improve water quality and soil health, while also providing habitat for wildlife. Pheasants Forever & Quail Forever president and CEO Howard K. Vincent called Nomsen the face of the Conservation Reserve Program within the wildlife community. CRP was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1985 and provides payments to landowners to remove environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production and plant species that benefit water quality and wildlife alike.
On May 11, Pheasants Forever & Quail Forever announced the retirement of Nomsen as its vice president of government affairs.
Nomsen has made more than 300 trips from Alexandria to Washington, D.C., over his career to testify, lead volunteer groups and talk with legislators about conservation-related programs. In this question-and-answer story, Nomsen talks about the current state of conservation, how it’s changed during his time with Pheasants Forever and where opportunities might be going forward with conservation policy. The story has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: Why has working on conservation policy been so close to your heart?
NOMSEN: The answer is it’s genetic from my father. Then my schooling and time at South Dakota State University on the faculty there as a wildlife resource professional helping volunteers understand and work through conservation policy and issues. That’s kind of the niche I ended up in.
I didn’t get things done out there. The organization and the voice of our members, our farmers and landowners, everyone else. That’s how things get done out there. I’m just a way to engage. It’s tough to talk about D.C. right now. There’s so much of what I call the pull of the political noise, and all of the harsh rhetoric. If you can manage to get beyond all that, there are some very important ways that people’s voices can be heard out there, and you can get things done.
Q: How have things changed over the years as it pertains to getting these conservation programs funded properly in the farm bill?
NOMSEN: There’s always been ups and downs related to budget processes and availability of funding. That’s been a constant over the years. It frankly used to be a little bit less harsh of an environment in terms of political rhetoric years ago. Again, it’s something you can work through if you’re persistent and you present your message correctly. Stay on course, science based, fact based, just helping policymakers understand what works out here in the midwest, what doesn’t work, and what types of things should they think about supporting.
Q: When you look at your career and what you and others have been able to get established as it pertains to conservation, what are you most proud of?
NOMSEN: I spent most of this career on the USDA side of things, federal farm bills, and it started with just the CRP program. But organizationally now, in the 2018 farm bill, there’s $30 billion in there for various conservation programs. So it’s been nice to see that grow over the years. It isn’t just CRP. It’s CRP plus this huge array of acronyms that all support various things, but that all have the common ending of helping put more conservation on that agricultural landscape. I feel good about that.
Q: People often think of CRP when they think of conservation programs funded under the farm bill. What are a couple other programs that you think people might benefit being more familiar with and can benefit landowners, water quality and wildlife?
NOMSEN: I’m glad you mentioned water quality because that’s part of this. All of these programs are focused on some type of on-the-ground habitat related effort. In some cases, these are permanent habitat, like a wetlands acquisition project, or in some cases it’s helping a landowner manage crop land or ranch land a little bit better and improving water quality, which is good for wildlife. It can be lessening soil erosion, which is good for wildlife and flood control.
The last few years I’ve been working on pollinator projects and programs that help landowners put some pollinator habitat out there for monarch butterflies and benefiting honey bees. That broadening of all of those environmental and public benefits that accrue from conservation programs, it has really changed over the years.
Q: We as hunters often get conditioned to just focus on a program’s benefits for birds or bucks. But the habitat on the ground through these programs are all-encompassing when it comes to wildlife they benefit, right?
NOMSEN: It all boils down to conservation just helps people focus on a continued enhanced quality of life. That’s an important component that we don’t talk about enough. Maybe we talk about flushing roosters and ducks and deer a little bit too much, when we should have been talking more about this huge array of critters that habitat projects benefit.
Q: How would you assess the state of conservation and where we are at right now?
NOMSEN: There’s never been the ability to stand up and say, ‘Hey, we did it. We reached our objectives. We’re done, and mission accomplished. It’s over.’ It just doesn’t work like that. It is challenging to figure out how to make conservation relevant to all Americans, especially as fewer and fewer people spend time with outdoor activities.
Oddly, one of the things that’s happened as a result of COVID-19 is a lot of people are discovering or re-discovering nature and outdoor activities as a place where they can find some solace. They can get some great recreation and decompress a little bit.
Q: As you look ahead to the future of conservation programs and getting proper funding for them, are you concerned? Optimistic?
NOMSEN: All types of responses to that. I check yes on all of them. Right now, we are working in Congress to pass the Great American Outdoors Act, which would provide permanent, full dedicated funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
That’s huge for our national parks, national monuments, anyone who enjoys the outdoors. This is a huge priority. I’ve been working on it for 30 years to some extent.
There’s other issues out there that we need to be engaged with. I spent some time working on climate change related efforts. Really taking a close look at wildlife adaptation to climate change and especially the connection with natural systems that can sequester carbon. Because that’s what that hole debate is about is carbon sequestration.
Tree plantings get talked about a lot, but we should also be talking about deep-rooted native prairie grasses. They can be a wonderful carbon sink and provide great wildlife habitat and help with offsetting greenhouse gas emissions.
One of the issues we’ve been working on for about five years now is the Restoring America’s Wildlife Act, RAWA. Helping state wildlife agencies offset the reductions in license sales from hunting and fishing over the years. Now the issues state agencies have to deal with are getting more complex, much more expensive. Here’s a mechanism to help take funding and let states receive grants to augment their budgets so they can continue to work on anything related to their state wildlife action plans. That’s something that is hopefully looking toward the future.