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.