Natalie Phelps Finnie is candid about her role as director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. With a background in medicine, she earned a nurse practitioner degree from Vanderbilt University. Heading up the IDNR was not a job Phelps Finnie saw in her future.
“Not by a long shot,” she said. “This was not on my list of to-dos, but I will say I couldn’t be more honored, humbled and excited.”
Conversely, Phelps Finnie feels the skills needed to thrive as a nurse practitioner will serve her well as the leader of a sprawling, complex state agency.
“One of my greatest skills is just being able to get to the heart of a problem,” she said. “That skill comes from being a nurse practitioner. You have to know the right question to ask. I look at the DNR as my patient.
“You have to admit when you don’t know something. You have to bring the experts in the room and get all the details to make the best decision you can. Humility is maybe the most important thing. You can’t come into this with an ego and think you have all the answers.”
And, it’s not like Phelps Finnie is coming into this job cold.
She served 18 months as an assistant director under Colleen Callahan. Phelps Finnie had a full portfolio in that year and a half.
“I supervised the Office of Land Management, state parks and historic sights, and the Office of Legislative Affairs, more recently, mines and minerals and oil and gas,” she said. “Those are just the areas I supervised. On the director’s team I got pulled into anything that had any legislative involvement. I was very involved in all of those.”
An Eldorado native, Phelps Finnie knows a thing or two about the political workings of Illinois. Her father, David Phelps, served 15 years in the Illinois House of Representatives and another four years in the U.S. Congress. She served one term in the Illinois legislature herself.
“Really, to be the head of an agency you have to have a broad experience and skill level,” she said. “To be hyper-focused on biology could be problematic. Knowing who’s who is government, knowing who to call and already have a relationship developed is hugely important.”
Phelps Finnie takes over a department that is in a rebuilding phase. The agency once employed 3,000 people. Now, there is funding for 1,250 employees. She will focus on the rebuilding project, both re-staffing and deferred maintenance.
“I want this agency, not just in the state, I want people in this state to look at IDNR and say, “That is how government should be run,’” she said. “Also, I want us to be the best DNR in the country. It’s being here, being here with people, leading by example, doing the tough work with them. That’s how I lead. I’ve found when people see you are sincere and genuine and you’ll get in the trenches with them, they’ll follow you anywhere.
“The single most important thing I can say is that without Gov. (J.B) Pritzker’s getting Illinois’ fiscal house in order and giving DNR its best budget in 20 years, none of this is possible. These big things are just pipe dreams without a governor to get our state budget in order.”
Phelps Finnie said the agency is in the process of prioritizing which projects to tackle next. As a Southern Illinois resident, she will make sure state parks and historic sites in the region will get the consideration they deserve.
She noted that construction bids are expected this year for restoration work at Rend Lake Resort. Finally, she acknowledge that despite the rebuilding that was done during the past four years, there is plenty of work remaining.
“It’s hard to pinpoint just one challenge,” Phelps Finnie said of her new role. “It’s such a huge role. I think our biggest challenge is still communication and perception of our department, both internally and externally. We have so much deferred maintenance, also inside the agency because of all the budget cuts.”
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February 3, 2023 at 06:05PM