Chris Niskanen, newspaper columnist turned DNR official, is off to the next challenge

©Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

Tony Stifter/TNS/TNS

Chris Niskanen, 56, has been Department of Natural Resources communications director since February 2011, a position he is leaving Sept. 8. Previously, for 17 years he was the St. Paul Pioneer Press outdoors columnist. In the interview below, he offers a unique perspective as someone who has reported on the DNR and also worked at the agency alongside its leaders.

———

Q Was your career goal to be an outdoors writer?

A Yes. While in college, I worked for Fins and Feathers magazine for about 6 months. That’s how I got my first newspaper job at the Quad City (Iowa) Times. They needed an outdoor writer, and I had stories to show them.

Q You left that paper for one in Reno, Nevada.

A My mom lived in southern Oregon and I wanted to be closer to her. Also, the Reno paper wanted to expand its outdoors coverage. I learned a lot, including one time when I drove across the Nevada desert with U.S. Sen. Harry Reid. An antelope jumped in front of us and Reid said it was the most beautiful thing he ever saw, proving again that exposing people to nature can have positive effects.

Q Why did you leave the Pioneer Press for the DNR, an agency you had occasionally criticized?

A The newspaper industry was starting to collapse. Our union had made a deal with Pioneer Press management that we would work 40-hour weeks but get paid for 37 hours. In the end it was hard to step away, but I was ready for a change.

Q The DNR is a bureaucracy, and the communications director manages a fairly large staff. What did you think you were getting into, versus what the job actually turned out to be?

A I knew it was a large organization with a lot of processes to understand. The communications director job was more complex than I imagined. Initially, it was like holding the reins of a Pony Express wagon. Also, managing staff was new to me, and I had to learn about that. The Volunteer magazine was also in my department, as were other responsibilities.

Q What’s your impression of DNR employees?

A As a journalist looking at the agency from the outside, that was another thing I underestimated. There is a lot of passion at the DNR among its employees. Whether it’s a fisheries biologist or a hydrologist or a conservation officer, people go into those jobs for the right reasons. The perception among some people that DNR employees twiddle their thumbs all day isn’t the case.

Q How difficult is it to move public opinion about chronic wasting disease, for example, or other important resource topics?

A Some people are too busy to pay attention, and others don’t read newspapers anymore. The challenge comes down to using a variety of media to engage different demographics of outdoor users. Older users might be only interested in catching walleyes. But younger users are tied closely to social media and to different types of activities. In recent years we’ve done a pretty good job on social media of reaching young people.

Q That said, in some quarters the DNR isn’t trusted or even very well liked.

A It’s easy to throw rocks at the process. But if you don’t put your 2 cents in when you have a chance, you shouldn’t complain.

Q In that vein, DNR regulatory meetings seem to attract fewer and fewer outdoors users in recent years. Now, during the pandemic, is it harder or easier to reach these people?

A It appears some people will attend a virtual meeting who otherwise wouldn’t attend an actual DNR meeting. So there’s hope.

Q In the next 25 or 50 years, can the state’s lakes and lands be improved or at least sustained in their present condition? Or will the ravages of time and more people on the landscape necessarily make things worse?

A We don’t always see the progress, but it’s there. Other states would love to have our state parks, public lands and muskie and walleye fishing. I’m an optimist.

Q Dove and bear hunting begin Tuesday and early goose hunting begins Saturday. Do you prefer one type of hunting over others?

A I still love deer hunting and also bird hunting.

Q How could the DNR be improved?

A The agency needs to hire a new generation of diverse employees. It has made a lot of strides, particularly in enforcement. But other divisions lag. There is an unnecessarily high educational bar for some jobs. A lot of smart people don’t get in because they don’t have a Ph.D.

Q How can the state’s outdoors reporting be improved?

A We need more diverse voices in outdoors writing. More women and more minorities; people who look like the next generation of outdoor users. I’d love to read more outdoor columns by Black and Latinx writers. Old white guys like me should get out of the way and push for these voices.

Q What’s next for you?

A During the last five summers I’ve volunteered on an archaeology project in Alaska, and I’m interested in writing about the Yupik people in that area. Also, I want to work in the food industry to help close the circle between food, sustainability and conservation. Maybe my role will be in communications, maybe something else. I’m going to take six months to figure it out.

———

©2020 Star Tribune (Minneapolis)