Today on episode 375 I’m talking with Conservation Alliance Executive Director Nicole Rom. Nicole came into the world with Conservation in her DNA. She is leading a tireless staff of conservationists working to harness the collective power of business and outdoor communities to fund and advocate for the protection of North America’s wild places.
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First I want to start with how’d you end up attending Bates College?
That’s a great question to start off with, I was attracted to a small liberal arts college in Maine. You might not know that Bates has the second oldest outing club. They maintained several miles of the Appalachian Trail and they’re a division one Ski team. I was a competitive downhill racer in high school and, was excited with the opportunity to continue that.
Then most of all, I was able to be the first class that could study environmental studies as a major. So those were the reasons that drew me to Maine and to Bates in particular.
So what was it like to be a Coxswain when on the crew team?
I did that my freshman year for something new. I had never had the experience when I was in high school.
I primarily skied and I’ll just start by saying it’s a perfect position for somebody who is short, loud, and enthusiastic, and I fit all of those criteria. You’re essentially the captain of the boat that you’re on. I was often a coxswain for the women’s eight or the men’s four and you’re responsible for steering, setting the pace for the row.
Counting for power motions, when you need to step up the pace when you’re in a competition. And obviously one of my highlights was participating in the head of the Charles in Boston, one of the renowned rowing races. So that was a fun experience I did for a year. You’re essentially the bow captain. People don’t realize you’re facing forward. You’re the one that can see everything. The rowers are facing you and you’re the one that sets the pace, the tone, and make sure that the boat is going straight and, emphasizing when there’s time to do power strokes to move you forward in a competition.
How were you introduced to the Outdoors?
I was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, and grew up in Park City. So I learned to downhill ski at the age of three. My parents eventually moved to the East coast when I was in elementary school, but I essentially grew up in a family that really valued skiing and camping, and the outdoors.
I particularly remember every Sunday was spent during my childhood hiking and doing something as a family outside. But mostly I would say my real connection to the outdoors is because I moved from Utah to Maryland to New York, and of course lived in Maine during college. My family consistently went back to Minnesota where my dad grew up in Ely, Minnesota or the gateway to the boundary waters canoe area wilderness.
We’d go there twice a year in the winter and in the summer and it was the boundary waters that really laid the foundation.
I had studied abroad my junior year in Tanzania and was really, moved by the experience studying wildlife ecology and conservation and learning Swahili. And I thought I’m going to apply to the Peace Corps.
Unbeknownst to me, I thought I’d go back to East Africa since I had spent six months there and they ended up looking at my application and said, you’ve got really great experience in environmental education, we could use a volunteer like you in Kazakhstan. And so of course, first I had to pull out a map and learn where Kazakhstan was, right?
I had never heard of it. And then I, as I learned more, I thought, wow, what an amazing opportunity to live in a former Soviet Republic. I served from 2000, 2002, so it was the eighth group of Americans ever in that country. Wow. Literally eight years after the Soviet Union collapsed, they began sending volunteers every year.
And while I was there, there was still a lot of the legacy of the Soviet Union in terms of weekly lines to get your flour and your basic food ingredients. So, while they were moving into a democratic nation, there was still a lot of that legacy. Russian was the dominant language, which I had the opportunity to learn.
And I was there for two years teaching ecology to fifth through 11th grade. I, helped manage an after-school ecology club for the high school and executed a few fun summer camps. And what sticks out to this day was my connection with students and, Their passion and love for the mountains. Kazakhstan, just so our listeners understand, you’ve got the prairie step in the predominant part of the country, and then the Tien Shan Mountain range in the south that are the beginning of the Himalayas.
The mountains rise up to 20,000 feet and I was lucky enough to be in the southeastern part of the country in those mountains. So I bought cross-country skis and I took from my kids hiking in the local mountain and we volunteered at the local nature preserve at their naturalist program and interpretive center, it was an incredible experience.
Was there a trip or activity or person that inspired the conservation in you?
Two things come to mind. The first, was when I did an Outward Bound course in Colorado when I was 15, turning 16. It was the first time I did an experience like that with peers and with my parents. And I quickly realized that the outdoors and adventure is a lot more fun when you’re with folks your own age than being dragged along. That was sort of a period in time, I think anyone who’s a teenager can remember what it’s like. During my high school years, there was a period of time where I would take my, then Walkman, now iPod to listen to music, was dragged along hikes that I didn’t want to do. And when I had that experience, I realized I really took it on as something that I loved for my own.
And I got into climbing after that. So that was the moment that it became something that I loved and not just something spoon-fed to me by my parents. And the other, person that really sticks out beyond my grandparents was when I was at Bates. I had the amazing opportunity to meet Terry Tempest Williams. Somebody I deeply admire and love and obviously read her books and being born in Utah, understanding Red Rock country and the Great Salt Lake. Meeting her was really, life-changing. We had the opportunity to take a sunrise hike with her while she was visiting and doing a talk.
And I remember specifically her talk that she gave at the school, connected all of the courses that I was taking at the time, and helped me really realize that I could choose environmental studies as a major and as a career path. And it wasn’t just something I could enjoy reading or doing on the side, that it actually could go from passion and interest to career.
And your work and your experience seemed focused on climate, how did that develop over the years versus other, some other environmental subject?
Yeah, so after the Peace Corps, I returned back to the US and pursued graduate school in environmental policy and landed my first job at the National Wildlife Federation, so a large conservation award. I was, really managing their conservation education programming in the Midwest and the Upper Great Lakes. And it was at that time, 2004, 2005 before Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth came out that NWF and a lot of the large conservation and green environmental orgs were starting to realize they needed to, prioritize climate change as an issue and some were wrapping their arms around it quicker than others. And at that point I had this amazing opportunity. My Aunt Becky, who was heavily involved in the boundary waters, had worked closely with a man named Will Steger. The National Geographic Arctic Explorer, who they had worked collaboratively with on protecting the Arctic Refuge in the nineties. Will was often brought to Congress to testify on issues of the Arctic.
He was starting a new nonprofit focused on Climate Change. She called me and said, Nicole, I think you’d be perfect. Will Steger is starting this org focused on climate change, education, and policy, and, you should explore it. So I came to Minnesota in May of 2006 for an interview. I had never met Will Steger before.
I remember my interview was on his houseboat on the Mississippi River with ducks floating by, and I thought, this is the weirdest interview I’ve ever done. And he had small grants for $35,000 and this grand vision to really address climate change and no real plan for how to do it. I was 27, going on 28 and I thought, what an amazing opportunity to be the executive director of a new organization.
So I moved to Minnesota from Michigan where I was living at the time, excited to be closer to my grandparents in the boundary waters and literally thought I would be working with Will for one or two years. I’d learn a lot and I’d move on, and I ended up staying in that role for 15 and a half years until I recently left last year and joined the Conservation Alliance.
And so the Conservation Alliance recently announced an inaugural summit this May to advance business-led conservation in partnership with the Next 100 Coalition, Outdoor Alliance, and the Outdoor Industry Association. Can you share a little bit about that?
Yeah. We’re super excited to make this dream a reality in 2023.
So all Conservation Alliance members, can send one staff member for free. It’s going to be held, as you said, in late, may in Colorado. And our goal with the summit is to really celebrate the conservation successes we’ve had to educate and empower and unite our member businesses and their employees, both old and new, around a shared equitable land and water conservation agenda.
And so themes will include climate. , biodiversity, equity, access, recreation, and of course rural economic development. And for us, the summit’s not just a conference and a chance to come together after several years living in the pandemic and, missing that opportunity. It’s about engagement and [00:20:00] educating our members, but most importantly, providing a platform for our business leaders to be more effective advocates for conservation.
So how can brands participate?
Well, the first thing I’ll say is that any business that cares about conservation can join the Conservation Alliance regardless of industry or size. Obviously, the outdoor industry is core to the organization, to our founding, and to who we are and who will continue to be.
But the organization’s continuing to see that we need to increase our impact for conservation. We have to diversify and grow our member business. and that there’s power in our collective collaboration and that, collective multiplier. And really we want those who value, the protection of wild places and outdoor to join us. So if a company is doing even less than a million in annual revenue, it costs as little as $500 to join the Conservation Alliance. And it’s a way for, member companies to align their brand with an organization that’s both funding and advocating for wild places and outdoor places.
It’s just a super exciting time to see the impact the Conservation Alliance has had over the last 30 years, but more specifically the last 15 years where we’ve invested over, a million dollars into some of these key priority campaigns, and now we’re seeing the success of that effort come to fruition in 23.
let’s talk about what else is new for the Conservation Alliance in 2023. What else you guys got going on?
One of the exciting things that have been shifting is how we, deploy our grant-making dollars. from investing in a few priority campaigns. As I mentioned, some of those we’re just seeing successes on like the Boundary Waters and Bristol Bay and the Tongass, and Bear’s Ears. Seeing the National Monument reinstated under the Biden administration. All of these were long-standing commitments of the Conservation Alliance, but some of the new things that we are deeply passionate about are equity and access.
Two years ago, we launched our Confluence grant-making program to invest. Historically racially excluded groups to really fund organizations with budgets under 500,000 led by black, indigenous and communities of color, to bring, more diversity and representation into the conservation movement. so that’s an exciting new addition for us. And of course, the summit is a new effort for us to really bring our member community together under one umbrella to unite around, a shared agenda.
As listeners listening to all this, I think it’s inspiring to me, what are some things, two or three things that we can do maybe personally or directly in our home hometowns to help mitigate the climate issues?
I often think of actions in three ways. Your choices, your voice, and your vote. How you spend your dollars, the companies that are aligned with your values, and choosing to invest with every dollar you spend, how you spend that money matters and sends a signal.
What’s next on your adventure list?
So right before the pandemic I finished visiting all 50 states, which is a goal of mine. That was really fun. Now I’m always eyeing both domestic and international adventures.
I’m keen to visit all the national parks and several monuments for sure, but what’s next on my list this year is trekking in the Dolomites in Italy. I’m a big fan of the Hut To Hut system in Europe. And then, I’m also exploring backpacking in the Wind River range in Wyoming, for a more local adventure.
Do you have any daily adventures or daily routines to keep your sanity?
Oh, I do have a daily yoga practice. Sometimes it’s as short as, 15 minutes but it’s at least 30. That keeps me sane because my mind is always going a mile a minute, and that just grounds me. Because I live in Minnesota, I am doing a lot of shoveling.
What are one or two books that you’ve read that inspire the conservationists in you and might help us?
I’m going to pick some oldies, but goodies. Desert Solitaire by Ed Abbey. It was definitely a game changer for me reading that in the nineties. Anything by Terry Tempest Williams, of course I love, but I started with Refuge, uh, her book about, breast cancer and generations of women and the Great Salt Lake.
She’s just a beautiful writer about natural history and, conservation. And then, Bill McKibben, the End of Nature. He published in 1980 about climate change, and he’s written several books since then. But, The End of Nature is a great book if you haven’t read it already.
Do you have a favorite piece of outdoor gear that’s under a hundred dollars?
I just got back from Costa Rica and the one thing that I took with me that I was so thankful for, and I always have with me, is my, it’s super light collapsible REI backpack that compresses down not much bigger than your fist. I just love that I can throw that in and use it whenever I’m traveling, especially if I’m not taking a larger backpack.
Do you have any suggestions or advice for folks wanting to get into the outdoor adventure biz or conservation biz?
I always say start with your own network. Whether it’s through college or school or friends, family. You’ll never know where your network can take you. Base Camp Outdoors is a fabulous job board for those who are looking to get into the outdoor industry and conservation. And then the Futurist Project is a really remarkable outdoor leadership program for those looking for mentorship, post-college. But my biggest piece of advice that I would want to leave listeners with is remember to follow your passions and interests. There’s a way to have them lead you into a career that you love.
As we wrap up, is there anything else you’d like to say to our listeners or ask of our listeners?
Yeah, I think if you work at a company, check out the Conservation Alliance and become a member. And if you’re already an employee at a member company, just want to see you get more engaged with our lobby trips and nominating and voting on our grantees.
You can definitely learn more at the Conservation Alliance, website, but, mostly for everyone else listening, I think while individual actions matter, and I always want to encourage people to doing things like I mentioned before about your voice, your choice, your vote, remember that collective action is far more powerful.
Where can people find you if they’d like to follow up?
They can find me on Instagram at @nroutdoors, or firstname.lastname@example.org and of course, LinkedIn when you think about networking, that’s a great place and I’m happy to connect with folks on LinkedIn.