Slow climb back begins: Reviewing the year at the Illinois Department of Natural Resources

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I asked Colleen Callahan if she was happy with her role.

“I am and appreciate it and enjoy it more every day,” she said. “We have 329 parks [state owned or managed sites] and 56 historic sites. I haven’t been to them all yet. I spent a whole week in the fall in southern Illinois and visited as many sites as possible. I did the same thing in the northern part of [the] state.”

On Dec. 20, I did a year-in-review phone interview with Callahan, who on March 1 became the first woman to be appointed director of the Illinois -Department of Natural Resources (or Department of Conservation).

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Colleen Callahan is the first woman whose photo will go on the wall of directors at the IDNR headquarters in Springfield.
Dale Bowman

Callahan is learning the breadth of the job.

“It is one thing to know it, another thing to live it, to see the diversity of the landscape,” she said. “There are so many different terrains that we can share in our state. People don’t have to cross a state line. I am more determined than ever to encourage people to stay in Illinois. We are lucky to live where we do.”

Illinois’ care of its natural resources has been declining since the 1990s.

“One of the high points was getting to replenish our ranks and beginning to meet the needs and expectations in our parks and recreation,” Callahan said.

The IDNR has filled 1,209 full-time slots. They have the budget to hire up to 1,250. To fill those slots, the IDNR is using such things as LinkedIn and other social-media platforms and legislator contacts.

One of the most glaring holes has been staffing the Illinois Conservation Police. Twelve CPOs were added this year, and another class is set to start Tuesday.

“We’re working on the ’21-22 budget now,” Callahan said. “I will request another class and hope that gets approved. We are making progress.”

That indicates the IDNR can work with Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office.

“The governor’s staff has been supportive,” Callahan said. “Early fall, we sat down and went over what we would like to see in our budget.”

Callahan said they will have another conversation soon.

Her first year has had its bumps, most notable being the late publication of the Illinois Digest of Hunting and Trapping Regulations 2019-20.

“We take full responsibility,” she said.

That booklet and the fishing regs booklet are, as she notes, like “a Bible” to many.

Accepting blame is one thing. Trying to prevent it from happening again is encouraging. This was not the first time a booklet was published late. Callahan is working on having the printing done on a multiyear contract instead of an annual one. A one- or two-page cheat sheet for the most commonly needed information is being considered.

“We are reevaluating the whole process,” she said. “We don’t want to have happen what happened this year.”

One advantage she has is the existing staff.

“We have an incredibly dedicated staff who believe in the mission, not unlike teachers we read about who dig into their own pockets,” she said. “Our staff have dug into their pockets [during the tough times.]”

But much needs to be done.

“The parks have a billion dollars of deferred maintenance, and we cannot do it all at once,” Callahan said. “Lots that needs to be done. We have a priority list, and we are beginning. We won’t get it down as quickly as some would like, but at least we are [beginning].”

As to an IDNR app and its website?

“I knew you were going to ask about that,” Callahan said. “[The Illinois Conservation Foundation] has developed an app.”

ICF executive director Crystal Curfman has made it an ICF initiative to develop it.

“The app is complete, though waiting on a few graphic changes, and is ready to be tested with a select group of users,” emailed Rachel Torbert, spokeswoman for the IDNR. “The Foundation hopes to have the app ready to launch early in 2020. As of now, it will serve primarily as a reminder, letting users know when boat registration may need to be completed or when applications are open for firearm and archery seasons, etc.”

“It is a process, and we are making progress,” Callahan said.

The website also needs to be reconstructed.

“We desperately need a new website, desperately need a more interactive one,” Callahan said. “We are working on new software.”

That will improve online interaction with constituents and allow for new permitting and licensing.

“The initial contracts have been signed,” Callahan said. “We look to roll out a new platform in 2021.”

Asked what would be her signature on the IDNR, Callahan said, “I hope that my legacy is that the staff, who were in survival mode when I arrived, when I leave they will have more confidence in themselves and their work; more pride. Simply want my legacy to be theirs and their legacy to be my mine.”

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via Chicago Sun-Times

December 28, 2019 at 08:23AM

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