Colleen Callahan doesn’t have all the answers. She doesn’t pretend that she does.
And, in her new job of director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources there are tons of questions begging for answers.
The agency is understaffed. There aren’t enough Conservation Police Officers to patrol Illinois’ woods and waterways. State parks are operating on shoestring budgets with skeleton staffs. The fleet of trucks and tractors IDNR employees use, well, it’s safe to say few of the vehicles are still under warranty.
So, where does Callahan start?
“It is a work in progress,” Callahan said. “I needed to come in and ask where we are and how we got there and identify the needs and how to meet them. I’m in the process of that. In 1999-2000 we were able to hire 50-some Conservation Police Officers. Now it’s 20 years later. Now, some of them are retiring. We have two classes now and we’ll have 30 we’re bringing on, at the same time we’ll have a high percentage in the retirement path.”
Prioritizing will be a key issue in the early days of Callahan’s tenure.
The former Illinois Director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development followed an interesting route to IDNR. Unlike many of her predecessors, Callahan is neither a biologist nor a career politician.
To revisit a previous theme, in accepting the job as IDNR director, Callahan came to grips with the reality that she doesn’t have all the answers.
“I don’t know what the right background is,” she said. “It depends on who you ask. When you recognize you are working with people who know what you need to know and know what you don’t know, it is an opportunity for everyone to learn together. I’ll never know what they know, and I do rely on them to teach me. I think at the same time, there are things I can share with them and bring value to what they do.”
The one thing Callahan understood is that the men and women serving the understaffed department are a dedicated lot.
“I knew coming in it was a staff that believed in the mission,” she said. “I call IDNR, ‘the vast and varied’, with 14 different departments from mines and minerals and natural gas to wildlife. If you’re not close to it, you really have little idea about the depth and breadth of the agency, who it serves and what its responsibilities are. To be able to work alongside of these people was a humbling opportunity.”
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Some groups have been critical of Callahan’s agricultural background, stating that agriculture and wildlife conservation issues don’t always align.
“I’m more of a flora and fauna person,” Callahan countered. “I’m into the landscape and the natural part of that. I don’t consider myself either-or, I consider myself a Plus 1. I think you could go through the photo gallery of my phone and find as many pictures of flowers and trees as anything else.”
She sees her role as being IDNR’s advocate.
“Because we need that in our state, our natural resources are who we are and how we live our lives,” Callahan said. We need to step up and make sure our voices collectively are heard. My priority is to be an advocate for them.”
During her professional career, Callahan has also served as a communications consultant, where her mantra was to communicate, collaborate and connect.
“If we don’t do these three things together, everything will break down,” she said. “At my core I believe that to communicate is the beginning of understanding. I view my role, I will communicate that message.”
As for her goal as IDNR director, she said it's to restore the agency to the prominence it once held.
“I know this department was once very highly regarded, among department of natural resources throughout the U.S.,” Callahan said. “We were looked at, we were admired. My goal would be to bring us back to that kind of stature, not just for stature, but because we are doing and accomplishing good work.”
Callahan is the first woman to hold the position. She appreciates the significance, but the distinction will not define her tenure.
"It means a lot to me that I am, but that’s just a coincidence," she said." I can’t think of anything in my career that I have done in order to be the first woman to do it. It’s just happened that way. I’ve been fortunate to have been given opportunities to do things I’ve wanted to do. When I was asked to serve at USDA, I wasn’t the first woman to do that, and that wasn’t important."