Looking back at Colleen Callahan’s nearly four years as the first woman director of the IDNR

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Colleen Callahan stands in front of the headquarters of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources on the northwest corner of the Illinois State Fairgrounds shortly after she became the first woman to be director of the IDNR in 2019.

Dale Bowman

Colleen Callahan stepped down as director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources at the request of Gov. J.B. Pritzker. Her last day in the office was Friday. On March 1, 2019 Callahan became the first woman director of the IDNR and its earlier version, the Department of Conservation.

“Four of us [directors] are leaving and won’t return, it kind of goes with the territory,” she said.

The average tenure of somebody in her type of position is three years, two months.

“So I beat the odds,” she said. “I am not angry nor am I ticked off.”

That’s because she understands whether a presidential appointment, which she had earlier in her career, or the state-level, you serve at the pleasure of the leader. She admitted to being disappointed and hurt by the request.

“I am not retiring,” said Callahan, 71.

What exactly she will do is uncertain, but it will have the three C’s. In this case, it is continuing work in conservation, communication, and consultation because “any director will know more than they did on their first day.”

I was leery when Callahan was appointed because she did not have a background in biology. She came more from the media and communications side, but she helped lead the IDNR back toward competency and its place as a destination job. The IDNR she took over was a skeleton after four years of budget issues under former Gov. Bruce Rauner. The IDNR has a long way to go to full recovery, but it is again a functioning agency. To me, that is her greatest legacy.

Colleen Callahan in the field at an outdoors event during her role as the first woman director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

Provided

Callahan made history as the first woman IDNR director, but she broke through before as the first female president of the National Association of Farm Broadcasting.

“Being the first woman in leadership role served me well this time around,” she said.

Over the years, there have been whispers of combining the IDNR and Department of Agriculture, but Callahan said during her tenure she had heard “no internal discussion about that.”

She hopes one legacy will be her main three C’s: communicate, collaborate and connect.

“Every office director will tell you that it works, but it doesn’t solve everything,” she said.

She’s proud of the development of a five-year plan that includes being a leader in reducing the carbon footprint. The IDNR was a key in the 30 Conservation Task Force, given the goal of “protecting the natural lands and waters of Illinois.” The State Water Plan was signed off on and submitted.

The IDNR oversees leases on about 35,000 acres. Those leases are being rewritten for the use of cover crops and the elimination of the use of dicamba.

She’s proud of the lead effort the IDNR has in preventing invasive carp from reaching the Great Lakes and of the rebranding of invasive carp as copi.

A gratifying part of her job was spending time at state sites and meeting local officials. She hoped to visit every IDNR site, but because of Covid came up short of visiting the nearly 400 sites.

“I am very proud of the fact we received the largest state budget in the last 20 years to help us address the long-overdue repairs,” she said.

General revenue funding for the IDNR had declined by 79 percent since 2000.

The IDNR just had its largest budget for Open Space Land Acquisition and Development (OSLAD) grants.

Now comes change and she said, “I will assist in whatever way needed in the transition. If asked, I will certainly do that.”

No word yet on her replacement.

Colleen Callahan stands in front of the wall of past directors of the IDNR and its earlier version, the Illinois Department of Conservation, early in her time as the first woman director of the IDNR in 2019.

Dale Bowman

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January 13, 2023 at 07:11AM

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