Conservation officers spend most of their time on the job dealing with the public, including some carrying weapons.
Phil Nale of Brownstown learned a couple of things early on in his 30-year career about that part of the job.
“Ninety-eight percent of the people you meet are fine,” Nale said. “A lot of people I’ve arrested or given tickets to, I can still be friends with because they know I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. A few hold a grudge, but there are some people I’ve dealt with that I still feel like I could go fishing with today. It’s a respect thing.”
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The Salem native, who celebrated his 56th birthday Monday, recently was named the Indiana Department of Natural Resources Law District 8 Conservation Officer of the Year. It’s an honor that usually goes to younger officers who are just getting started and “raring to go”, he said.
“The district award was a big honor for me,” he said. “I had a heart attack back in the fall. I went back to work in three weeks.”
Nale said he has been told by his superiors that it’s a thing like that that makes him an inspiration for the younger officers.
“I am still motivated and wanting to get out there and do the job,” he said. “That’s why I got it, because I’m still enthusiastic about it.”
Nale said another thing he has taken from his job it that most people just want to talk and have someone listen to them.
“One of the worst guys I ever dealt with over in Washington County helped me get a lady out of a burning car one time and considered me his buddy after that,” Nale said. “I let him talk. I didn’t go up to him and start talking and putting a finger in his chest. I let him talk and asked questions to let him know I was interested in what he had to say.”
Nale said that often helps diffuse situations that could have a lot worse outcome.
“I’ve had guys come back and tell me the truth later,” Nale said.
One of the most common issues he and other conservation officers deal with involves hunters trespassing.“People either assume they have permission or think it’s not a big deal,” Nale said. “People like to use the land like it’s their own, and they don’t want to ask permission.”Conservation officers try to serve as mediators in those cases, he said.
Nale said one of the scarier calls involved a report of a man dragging a deer with a lawn mower after he had shot it in a place where he wasn’t supposed to be.
“When I got there, they (the man and his son) had got the lawn mower hung up, so they had loaded him (the deer) in a vehicle,” Nale said.
As Nale moved in front of the vehicle, the dad was revving the motor up.
“I drew down on him and thought I was going to have to shoot him with his son right there,” Nale said. “It was probably one of the most tense moments I’ve ever had because I kept yelling for him to shut the vehicle off. I was screaming, and he wouldn’t do it, and his son was standing right there. I kept thinking, ‘I’m going to shoot this guy, and it’s all over a deer. You’re going to try to run me over because of a deer.’”
The son ended up talking his father into shutting the car off, and he was taken to jail for poaching, Nale said.
Love of the outdoors
Before deciding to become a conservation officer, Nale worked in construction while commuting from Salem to Indiana University Southeast in New Albany to take night classes.“It was good money, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do forever,” Nale said of the construction industry.About halfway through his work toward a business degree, Nale said he met Sherry White, the wife of conservation officer Dan White, who was assigned to Washington County.
“I learned more about what he did,” Nale said. “My big love at the time was the outdoors and animals, and I just thought anything I could do with animals would be great. I learned that being a conservation officer was about taking care of the animals and protecting the environment. That was the thing for me.”
Nale said a lot of people want to become conservation officers, but it’s not that easy.
“There are no guarantees, but I had a lot of high hopes,” he said. “A lot of guys apply two or three times and never get on.”
Nale made it on his first attempt and started working Sept. 22, 1985.
“I started off in Daviess County,” Nale said. “It’s a rural area with a big Amish settlement.”
The county also has Glendale State Fish and Wildlife Area, which includes Dogwood Lake and many ponds with plenty of good fishing.
“It’s my favorite place,” Nale said. “I brag on it a lot. I never had many problems with vandalism, theft and things like that there.”
‘Decided to downsize’
After spending about 5½ years there, Nale said, he decided he wanted to get back closer to home, so he took an opening in Floyd and Clark counties.“It was just a whole different group of people there,” Nale said. “Deam Lake was so busy at times. We would have 500 people on a weekend all at the beach and drinking.”He spent six years there before Conservation Officer Jeff Barker was promoted to sergeant and had to move to District 6 from Jackson County in 1998.
“I took his place because he had to live in that district,” Nale said.
Jackson County has been a lot different from the other counties he has served because of flooding related to the East Fork White River and the Muscatatuck River.
“There are a lot of water-related rescues,” he said. “You definitely have to want to work around water.”
For much of his time in Jackson County, Nale lived in the Ratcliff Grove area west of Brownstown.
“I decided to downsize and move into town,” he said. “I was mowing 8½ hours a week; and if it rained on my day off, I was in trouble.”
Nale said he has stuck with the job for 30 years because he still feels as if he’s doing some good and helping people.
“I still feel like I’m doing the job,” he said.
Active in community
That will change in September when Nale retires.However, he plans to remain in the Brownstown area and active in the community. He’s already begun that process.“I’ve been on the fair board for two years,” he said.
For this year’s county fair, Nale helped obtain a sign for the conservation building and worked on the getting the new fish tank built.
“They needed it,” he said of the tank. “You couldn’t see the fish.”
He also was a youth counselor for the Karl E. Kelley Memorial Youth Camp in Tippecanoe County the past two years.
“I have 30 kids, and I love it,” he said.
Nale also is involved with Republican Hands On, a group of local people who do community projects.
“Not so much political, but they will pick an event that’s going to help the community,” Nale said.
One of those things is distributing food for Gleaners Food Bank of Indiana.
Nale has tried to instill his love of community to others, including his stepdaughter, Meghan Turner. A couple of years ago, she collected shoes to give to the local homeless shelter in lieu of presents for her birthday.
Nale also has an extensive display of arrowheads that he will continue to exhibit around the area.
Name: Phil Nale
Occupation: Indiana conservation officer