It’s been four months since J.B. Pritzker was elected governor of Illinois. And, hunters, anglers, hikers, campers and birders have no idea what direction the Illinois Department of Natural Resources will take during Pritzker’s tenure. Pritzker took the oath of office Jan. 14 and didn’t name an IDNR director until Feb. 19. Colleen Callahan, something of an outsider, was nominated on that date. Her term as director officially began March 1, but Illinois residents still know little about her plan for the agency.
We do know that she graduated from the University of Illinois’ agriculture program. We know Callahan was the director of the USDA Rural Development Program. And, we know she ran her own communications consulting firm. In the month since she was named IDNR director, Callahan has given just one media interview that I’m aware of. Granted, taking over a new job is a daunting task. However, you’d think — three weeks in — there would be some sort of media availability … a conference call if nothing else. I’m hoping this isn’t a harbinger of things to come. There was a time when IDNR was the most transparent public agency I’ve ever dealt with. But, that goes back to the days of Brent Manning and Jim Edgar. The agency did everything it could to make the directors and biologists available to the media. I think it’s safe to say the agency was never more respected nationally, or by the people of Illinois, than it was during that era of openness. The agency became more opaque during the George Ryan years. All access to IDNR was cut off during the Rod Blagojevich inquisition. Former Gov. Pat Quinn and director Marc Miller officially reopened the lines of communication, but many IDNR personnel were apparently scarred by the Blagojevich-era rule and were reluctant to speak to the media. Things didn’t get appreciably worse during Bruce Rauner’s tenure, but the agency’s transparency certainly didn’t improve. So, two months after her appointment, we don’t know which direction the IDNR will take under the Pritzker administration. There has been some feedback on Callahan’s nomination from local environmentalists. Some in the environmental community are concerned about her ties to agri-business. They are concerned about Callahan’s views might favor agri-business over clean water issues. Conversely, the Sierra Club issued a statement in support of Callahan. There are lots of questions to be answered. How does Callahan expect to deal with the agency’s woeful staffing conditions? Site superintendents are spread entirely too thin. Wildlife and fisheries biologists are being forced to cover several counties. Most counties are without a Conservation Police Officer to call their own. Will Pritzker’s IDNR continue trying to monetize state parks, or will the state adhere to its own mission statements regarding state fish and wildlife areas? What are the new director’s views of Mines and Minerals being under the IDNR umbrella? Will the IDNR under Gov. Pritzker take the endangered species list more seriously than the previous administration? Finally, on a totally selfish note, will IDNR officials and biologists be given the green light to discuss real issues with the media? The people have the right to know.