Wednesday, May 22nd, 2024

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Wednesday, May 22nd, 2024

Breaking News for

Sportsmen Since 1967

Who is Natalie Phelps Finnie? One on one with new Illinois DNR director

Natalie Phelps Finnie will serve as the new Illinois Department of Natural Resources director.

Illinois Outdoor News had the opportunity to have a quick chat with the newly-appointed Illinois Department of Natural Resources director, Natalie Finnie. 

Director Finnie’s excitement, enthusiasm, and hopes for the agency’s future were most contagious. I walked away from our conversation feeling more hopeful about the overall status of our DNR than I have felt in some time.

Many constituents across the state were initially unhappy with the appointment of the Eldorado native to the top IDNR post. The complaints ranged from it’s just a purely political payback to lots of grumbling about an Advanced Practice Nurse with a robust medical background being appointed instead of a natural resources professional.

She is a former state representative, serving the 118th Legislative District in the General Assembly from 2017 to 2019.

Finnie sees her experience as a legislator and nurse as full of positive attributes that she can bring to the table. Her experience as a legislator and her political chops put her in a unique position to understand the legislative process and overall administration side of things.

“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 in government, knowing who to call, and already having a relationship developed is hugely important.” 

Finnie went on to explain.  

“One of my greatest skills that comes from being a nurse practitioner is listening with empathy and being able to get to the heart of a problem,” she said. “You must know the right question to ask to determine the true problem. When to call in the experts to consult. I look at the DNR as my patient.”

Her experience as a nurse gives her the ability to creatively problem solve, with empathy and understanding, even in times of crisis. Another trait common to nurses is, to put it simply, nurses get things done. While her educational background may not be in wildlife management, you cannot get around the high levels of science, research, and drive that go into becoming an advanced practice nurse.

Finnie served as deputy director of IDNR since August 2021, overseeing legislative affairs, land management (which includes state parks and historical sites), mines and minerals, and oil and gas. 

She also served as the Department’s Infrastructure and Investment Jobs Act coordinator. In that capacity, Finnie coordinated with the Governor’s office and the U.S. Department of Interior to manage one of the most significant capital investments in Illinois history.

When asked what she saw as challenges for her upcoming tenure, Finnie quickly pointed out that even though last year’s budget was the largest IDNR budget in several administrations, “We still have a roughly 850 million dollar maintenance backlog. That’s a pretty tall mountain to climb. We also are still so short-staffed.”

With the strong support the agency enjoys from the Governor and the current administration, Finnie anticipates that the upcoming agency budget will be even larger than the current budget. The agency support from the current administration will hopefully ensure that more significant inroads can be made in increasing staff and bringing IDNR’s public lands back to their former glory.

“I want the employees of this agency; 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 about public service. It’s about being in the trenches with people, leading by example, and doing the tough work with them. That’s how I lead. When people see you are sincere and genuine, and you’ll get in the trenches with them, they’ll follow you anywhere.”

Throughout the conversation, Finnie also stressed prioritizing projects, being fiscally responsible, and, most importantly, increasing public perception and participation in the agency’s processes.

“You know, “said Finnie, “I learned really quickly as deputy director that we need to do a better job of working with public input on rules, regulations, and that sort of thing. We can’t just be throwing out changes and not working with the public.”

Finnie stressed the importance of improving communication both internally and externally. Another goal is to get the newly redesigned NRAB appointments made and the board up and running.

“We have to improve our transparency with the public.” Finnie described the issue of getting creative, prioritizing, and developing better working relationships with other organizations.

Another area on her priority list is taking a long hard look at IDNR properties and how they can be better managed, especially state historic sites. 

“We must look at our historical sites and ensure that we are telling the story and preserving the historical culture in the best, most culturally correct, and sensitive way,” she said.

Finnie stressed that although this wasn’t a position she sought, she is most honored and humbled to be in a public service position. 

“It’s an exciting time to be IDNR director,” she said. “We currently enjoy some of the best support as an agency that we have had in years. This support from the Governor and the administration will hopefully translate into a bigger budget and the ability to make major long-needed improvements.”

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