MINNEAPOLIS -- Dave Nomsen, 65, of Alexandria, Minn., recently ended a 28-year career with Pheasants Forever (PF), the past 25 years as the group's vice president of governmental affairs. Previously he worked for the National Wildlife Federation and taught at South Dakota State. His primary work for PF occurred in Washington, D.C., where he interacted with administration policymakers and members of Congress and where he was respected as a conservation policy expert. In the interview below, Nomsen discussed Washington's political climate and the challenges of advocating for conservation policy on a national scale.
Q: Twenty or more conservation groups have policy advocates in Washington today, far more than when you first went there in the mid-1990s.
A: Ducks Unlimited had staff there at the time, as did the National Wildlife Federation, the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies and the Wildlife Management Institute. There were others but not many. By contrast, the last time I testified in Washington, I did so on behalf of 45 groups.
Q: Congressional members and staff are bombarded with messages, requests and demands. How do you break through with a conservation message?
A: Relationships are critical, without which you don't make much progress. One example is Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson. I and the conservation community in general had a good relationship with him over many years, and still do. Without him, I doubt there would be a Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) today in the federal Farm Bill.
Q: Yet it seems conservation loses more often than it wins, especially in Washington.
A: True. But you have to continue to tell your story, and conservation is a fact-based, science-based story. We also benefit by conveying from our staff and members what congressional members, their staff and administration staff often don't know -- specifically, how things actually work out here on the land. PF farm-program professionals know, for instance, which policies benefit both farmers and natural resources and which are less effective. Communicating that to decisionmakers is the challenge.
Q: Who opposes conservation in Washington?
A: Large agribusinesses traditionally have been opposed to CRP, as just one example, or would like to modify it. Also, there are interests that make money storing and moving grain, and the more they have to store and move, the more money they make. Export markets also come into play. How conservation fits into all of this is complicated but increasingly important. In the years ahead, for example, we need to consider the effects of climate change on agriculture. To sustain our growing ability, we will have to invest more in conservation than we have. There's nothing better than trees and grasses for sequestering carbon.
Q: Lobbyists representing the agricultural interests you cite are fully staffed and obviously very effective. Are they tough to compete against?