Illinois Department of Natural Resources is more than deer, duck, and fish

    Colleen Callahan has a mission. As director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR), she is striving to make Illinois residents more aware of what the IDNR does for them and making IDNR more aware of what the state’s residents want from it.

    Ms. Callahan, a past president of The Chicago Farmers, was the guest speaker at TCF’s holiday meeting on December 9th at the Union League Club. During her presentation she outlined IDNR’s responsibilities and sought input from the audience members regarding how they would like to see the IDNR involved in their lives.

    “Many people think the IDNR deals with deer, duck, and fish, but the department is so much more than that,” said Ms. Callahan. “For example, here we are in Chicago with Lake Michigan at its doorstep. Were you aware that the IDNR is responsible for the coastline along the shores of Lake Michigan? It comes under the auspices of the department’s Coastline Management office, which also is responsible for the release of Lake Michigan’s water to 7 million people. As a department, we do ourselves a disservice by not being more engaged in the Chicago area.”

    Ms. Callahan noted that the management of the state’s recreational sites are IDNR responsibilities. This includes the 329 state owned parks, which attract 39 million visitors a year, community parks, and the 1,600-acre world class shooting complex in Sparta, Illinois.  “International visitors participate in shooting competitions at the complex and they are thrilled to be there,” said Ms. Callahan.

    She said that the IDNR has more than $1 million in grants to share with communities to improve their park sites. She introduced Ted Penesis, director of community outreach, who is working to further community relations and advise the communities how the grants would be best used. Recognizing that students from the Chicago High School for Agricultural Studies were in attendance, Ms. Callahan said that speaking at TCF’s meeting was an ideal occasion to share with them IDNR job possibilities such as water engineer or wildlife biologist. “When it is time to consider a career path, I hope you consider IDNR,” she added.

    Ms. Callahan observed that cultural resources could also be a part of IDNR’s title because it is responsible for the state’s historic sites and museums. In response to a question from the audience, Ms. Callahan related that the new state museum director is a champion for presenting our state historic sites, some of which were closed during the state’s lengthy budget impasse.

    “There are areas in some of our parks that have been closed and sections of the Illinois and Michigan Canal that are in need of repair,” she said in a response to an audience member’s concerns. “These are state treasures, with $1 billion of deferred maintenance statewide. However, now we have a budget, a capital bill, and we are hiring people so that we can address this list. There are things that you will notice that are being done, but it will take a while. For some of the projects we have to work with the Capital Development Board, and that in itself is a lengthy process.”

    IDNR also lists farming among its activities, said Ms. Callahan. The department has 35,000 acres of tillable land that is leased to more than 200 tenants. Working to be a good steward of the land and an agricultural model, the department has submitted an action plan to the governor that focuses on conservation of the environment.  The IDNR’s leases have become more environmentally friendly and are focusing on regenerative agriculture and soil health. “We now recommend that our tenants plant cover crops because they benefit the soil and wildlife,” she said.

    The IDNR’s office of Public Lands is charged with enhancing the state population’s access to land for recreational pursuits. With 97 percent of the land in Illinois privately held and 80 percent of the land owned by farmers, there is little land left for the public. “We have to establish relationships with private owners who might be willing to allow the IDNR to lease their land for hiking or hunting. In some instances, people approach us about taking over their land when they die because they don’t want it commercially developed,” Ms. Callahan said. She added that when the IDNR leases the private land for such things as hunting, it covers the liability insurance. The funding is provided through the federal Farm Bill and IDNR’s Illinois Recreational Access Program (IRAP). There also are tax benefits in the leasing arrangements.

    Farmers who own timber land could find the forestry office to be beneficial, she pointed out. The office’s foresters will evaluate the stand of timber for sale purposes and help in eradicating invasive plant species with controlled burns; wildlife biologists also are available to help with the preservation and conservation of the landowner’s natural resources. The state also has its own nursery in Mason City that provides seed stock for native trees and native grasses.

    “We continue to review IDNR’s role in the state,” said Ms. Callahan. “We plan to work with universities regarding how we are managing our land that historically has been in row crops. We are looking at the use of solar energy. We are committed to being an example and a leader in conservation.”

    Written by Denise Faris, Chicago Farmers Newsletter Editor