John Gottschalk isn't a farmer or rancher.
He's a retired newspaper publisher, a hunter and a grandfather.
But it's his role as a grandfather that means the most as Gottschalk begins a two-year stint as the top gun of one of the nation's largest conservation organizations.
Gottschalk, 70, is the new chairman of Pheasants Forever. The nonprofit, based in St. Paul, Minn., is the nation's largest organization dedicated to upland habitat conservation. Pheasants Forever and its quail conservation division, Quail Forever, have more than 135,000 members and 745 local chapters across the United States and Canada.
Gottschalk's leadership of the national board coincides with a flush of challenges to the conservation community. Gridlock in Washington, D.C., and the loss of millions of acres of grassland to expanding farming operations could have serious ramifications for the nation's wildlife habitat and soil and water quality.
“I want my legacy to my children and grandchildren to be a continuation of our national engagement in outdoor activities and the preservation of wildlife throughout the United States,'' he said. “Once it's gone, it's gone, and it doesn't come back.''
Pheasants are big business for rural economies. In South Dakota, for example, pheasant hunting generates $223 million in retail economic impact annually and an additional $111 million in salaries. The state estimates there are 4,500 jobs linked directly to pheasant hunting and related tourism.
It's part of a bigger wildlife-related recreation economy in the United States estimated at more than $144 billion, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“People might think that we're just a bunch of guys in orange caps who want to shoot pheasants,'' Gottschalk said. “That's not our mission at all.''
Pheasants Forever was one of seven major national sportsmen's groups that recently urged Congress and the administration to make habitat conservation efforts a priority. The idled federal farm bill, for example, represents the nation's largest investment in agricultural and private lands conservation.
The sportsmen's groups also called on Congress to end the partial government shutdown that has closed hundreds of wildlife refuges and other federal land across the country at the start of hunting seasons.
Federal data from 2012 show that American farmers are rapidly converting grassland and other non-cropland to fields of corn and other crops.
Nearly 400,000 acres of newly broken land was converted to cropland last year. Nebraska led the way with more than 54,000 acres of new land broken out for crops, according to the U.S. Farm Service Agency.
Similarly, acres enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program are at a 26-year low as farmers pull out land to grow crops. The grassland program was designed to protect the nation's toughest-to-farm, environmentally sensitive acres for the benefit of wildlife, soil and water quality. Landowners voluntarily enroll their property in exchange for payments, but current near-record, commodity-driven land prices lure farmers away from the program.
Declines in ring-necked pheasant populations have followed grassland losses. South Dakota reported a 64 percent decrease this summer in its abundance of the game bird. In Nebraska, surveys indicate that the pheasant population is down 38 percent. Iowa's roadside pheasant population survey tied for the lowest on record this summer.
“We're losing habitat at flank speed for not only pheasants, but everything from meadow larks to ducks, geese, quail and grouse,'' Gottschalk said.
He said the losses can be attributed to a combination of factors — including tough winters, cold, wet springs, heat and drought — but converting habitat to cornfields in order to feed ethanol plants shares the responsibility.
Pheasants Forever is fighting to stem losses. The organization has 110 wildlife biologists across the country who specialize in assisting landowners in designing and funding habitat improvements on private land with farm bill conservation programs.
The program has created better habitats on 3.32 million acres of land that were dry creeks, nonwatered corners of pivot-irrigated fields and other parcels “practically inch by inch'' since its inception a decade ago, Gottschalk said.
Gottschalk joined fellow Pheasants Forever board member Richard Bell of Omaha in a recent Reload Nebraska campaign to raise $20 million toward establishing and improving 1.1 million acres of wildlife on private and public land in the state. Bell is the retired chairman and chief executive of HDR Inc.
Gottschalk retired as publisher of The World-Herald in 2007 and has served as a Pheasants Forever board member since then. He said he accepted a seat on the Pheasants Forever board for the opportunity to achieve something of enduring value in preserving habitat.
“We may not make a dent, but we'll punch away at it and we'll do better than most believe possible,'' he said.