Outside learning in 2020: IDNR director Colleen Callahan does a year-end review


Colleen Callahan, the director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, did the traditional year-end interview, via phone. Obviously, pandemic-related questions made up the bulk of it.

A couple of issues will be discussed at another time, including the chance for increased conservation funding for farmers/landowners under the incoming Biden administration and a look at safety courses (IDNR deputy director Rachel Torbert reported nearly 5,500 certifications between online and in-person courses, despite the pandemic).

What have you learned and what would you do differently in the IDNR’s response to the pandemic?

‘‘We learned how much we can do when we put our minds to it,’’ Callahan said. ‘‘We know now we can accomplish our mission of conservation, preservation and presentation in ways never envisioned before.’’

On March 15, Illinois was the first state to close parks and sites.

‘‘That was not well-received universally,’’ she said. ‘‘The decision was not an easy one, not made lightly. Looking back, we know we made the right decision. We immediately began planning for reopening, even though we didn’t know when that would be.’’

Many sites reopened May 1 and the rest later in the month. That allowed staff to put signage in place for reopening. It also offered a side benefit.

‘‘It gave us a chance, little by little, for staff to return and get a lot of work done that would not be done with people there,’’ Callahan said. ‘‘By the time we did open, so many things had gotten done that needed done.’’

A sign of 2020, which was on a key pavilion at Kankakee River State Park on May 1, when many IDNR sites reopened after the pandemic shutdown that began on March 15. Credit: Dale Bowman

A sign of 2020, which was on a key pavilion at Kankakee River State Park on May 1, when many IDNR sites reopened after the pandemic shutdown that began on March 15.
Dale Bowman

The closure affected turkey hunters with site-specific permits for the spring season. By administration rules, their permits couldn’t be refunded. The IDNR worked through the process, and turkey hunters got their refunds a few months later. A new procedure was put in place.

‘‘We learned we can get the work done from home,’’ she said. ‘‘We were always working. We also learned a new definition of the word ‘Zoom.’ ’’

That allowed staff to prepare for the hunting seasons later in the year, including how to conduct draws safely in a pandemic.

‘‘Every season had to be altered in some ways,’’ Callahan said. ‘‘We wanted to offer all those seasons. Hunting is also about wildlife management. We really had to dig in.’’

That applied broadly.

‘‘While reopening was slow, it was successful,’’ she said. ‘‘People are still camping, even though there is snow on the ground in places. We have seen an increase in camping. . . . We learned that there is a greater appreciation for our sites than before.’’

The education will go on.

“We are still learning, but we are learning,” Callahan said. “This is a guess, once we are on the other side of COVID, we will utilize some of these efficiencies because we are better for it.”

What are some advancements in basic IDNR activities that need to happen, some of which have bugged me for years?

‘‘If we were together, we could bang our heads against the wall together,’’ Callahan said. ‘‘It is a work in progress.’’

She realizes that dragging the IDNR into the 21st century in terms of the internet is a haul ‘‘long, long overdue.’’

She was meeting this week with a developer for a new point-of-sale site (scheduled for March) for the purchase of licenses and registration ‘‘closer to 21st century.’’

Have there been advancements in bringing in more women and minorities?

‘‘When you ask if I am comfortable, I am not sure that is the right word, I am pleased that we are making progress,’’ Callahan said.

The number of women in the IDNR has increased from 25% in 2016 to 27.6% now, and more are in senior roles. Minority employees inched from 4% in 2016 to more than 5% now. Some changes will depend upon Central Management Services.

‘‘The future of the agency looks like these changes are being accomplished, but it is going to take awhile,’’ she said.

What would you like to accomplish in the next two years?

‘‘I would like to see continued improvement in our minority hiring — not just about hiring, but about building relationships and mentoring,’’ Callahan said.

The IDNR is updating the state’s water plan, which isn’t a sexy topic but is a vital one. It hasn’t been updated in 40 years.

She also would like continued improvement in working across agencies.

Will there be cutbacks brought on by pandemic costs?

‘‘We will be impacted, yes, as everyone will, but it is a matter of degrees,’’ Callahan said. ‘‘We are figuring that out right now.’’

via Chicago Sun-Times

December 24, 2020 at 02:45PM

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