SPRINGFIELD — Illinois Department of Natural Resources Director Colleen Callahan says that authority to hire more people has helped ease morale at the agency.
DNR has been working to fill nearly 100 positions this year, and the fiscal year 2020 budget, which began July 1, allows for a full-time-equivalent headcount of 1,250. There have been some retirements and some additions, and as of last week, there were about 1,192 positions filled.
“It means that we can actually begin to do our jobs more effectively and impactfully again,” Callahan said. “Staff would say that for a long period of time, they felt like they were in survival mode. Now, they feel like they survived. And now that we can hire again, it says help is on the way, and it’s a big morale booster, for sure.”
The department oversees more than 300 state-owned or leased sites including state parks, fish and wildlife areas, forests, marinas, conservation areas and nature preserves. Also in its purview are more than 55 historic sites, as well as regulation of mining, oil and gas resources and waterways.
In the early 2000s, the agency had nearly double the staff is does now, said spokeswoman Rachel Torbert — even without the historic sites that came under its tent when the old Illinois Historic Preservation Agency merged into DNR in 2017.
“Suffice it to say, we’re excited to be able to bring our staffing numbers up,” Torbert said.
“We’ll be adding staff here in Springfield, as well as adding field staff across state,” she said. The land division, including state parks and historic sites, is the largest, so most jobs are being added there.
In fiscal 2010, she said, the natural resources department had a headcount of 1,375, and there were 198 workers at the former historic preservation agency. In fiscal 2001, DNR had a headcount of 2,336, while historic preservation had 239 — a total of 2,575.
Positions recently available included those for civil engineers, biologists, licensed appraisers or other real estate professionals, landscaping and historic preservation architects, site interpreters, and public service administrators. The agency also has a new class of 12 conservation police officers, and 18 to 20 more recruits for those law enforcement jobs will begin training in January.
The agency also wants to hire a bilingual, Spanish-speaking interpreter who can work at Springfield historic sites — the Old State Capitol, the Vachal Lindsay home, the Dana-Thomas House and Lincoln’s tomb. The position was to be posted soon, Torbert said.
She also said that while the grounds of the Cahokia Mounds state historic site in Collinsville are open every day, the visitor center there is only open Wednesday through Sunday.
“We’re hoping to bring days of operation at Cahokia Mounds back up to seven days a week in the near future,” Torbert said.
Jim King of Pawnee, senior regional director with Ducks Unlimited, a sportsman-based organization that promotes wetlands conservation, notes that DNR is involved in wildlife management areas, and said he is encouraged the agency can hire more people.
“The real issue is the headcount was so low that there weren’t enough people to do the critical jobs that need to be done,” he said, such as site maintenance.
The agency’s budget for fiscal 2020 is $387.2 million, up from $334.3 million the year before. Callahan said the increase was realized as the agency identified needs and priorities, and got support from the governor’s office.
Torbert said adding nearly 100 people takes time.
“We’re making progress with each month that passes, but we also have to account for retirements or staff who have left the agency,” she said. “To help chip away at the open positions, we’re looking to hire an additional human resources representative in Springfield” to work with the land division.
As to which positions should be filled first, Callahan said, “I can’t say that one is more important than another.” But with the ability to hire, she said, “It just means that little by little, we can begin to get back to where we need to be.”
Bernard Schoenburg: 217-788-1540; @bschoenburg