February 22nd, 2009

DNR Park-Naming Group Weighs Dollars vs. Ethics

By Howard Meyerson
The Grand Rapids Press

Welcome to Coca-Cola State Park! Now that’s a sign I hope to never see.

But whether we do will depend on how the Michigan Department of Natural Resources goes about developing guidelines for naming rights and partnerships with the private sector.

“We’d prefer to partner with entities who have business missions that are similar to the DNR,” said Harold Herta, the resource management chief for Michigan State Parks. “I’d feel more comfortable partnering with Jay’s (Sporting Goods) or Cabela’s rather than Huggies.”

No doubt. Pepsi-Mountain Wilderness State Park is a bit of an oxymoron.

But a bidding war between Huggies and Pampers might follow if comfort-station naming rights were on the table.

Herta is part of a DNR naming group that is “wrestling” with the process of developing appropriate criteria for handling proposals. It also deals with how to best handle soliciting sponsorships.

The agency is struggling with a paradigm shift, needing to seek corporate and other private sponsors to accomplish the mission it did formerly with user fees and general fund tax revenues. That open palm leaves the agency potentially subject to undue influence.

Michigan State Parks, for instance, is now looking for cake and ice cream sponsors who can help underwrite the 90th anniversary celebration of state parks this summer.

“We’re asking for sponsors to create a banner and provide cake and ice cream for the June 20th kickoff at every state park,” Herta said.

No big deal, you might say. These are hard times. Bully for those businesses who pitch in and help. The 1980s are toast. So are the days of 50 percent tax support for state parks.

But what about those who come forward with a fistful of money, asking for more than a banner with their name on it for a day?

You may recall the ruckus in 2006 that led up to the White Pine Trail being renamed the Fred Meijer White Pine Trail State Park. The Fred Meijer Foundation offered to donate $1 million toward paving the trail, provided the park was named after the grocery magnate.

The DNR turned it down. Its old policy allowed parks to be named after only natural features like Tahquamenon Falls, land donations and conservation heroes like P.J. Hoffmaster, who built Michigan’s park system.

The agency’s snub made people mad—an old story with money on the table. Gov. Jennifer Granholm intervened and directed the state Natural Resources Trust Fund Board to revise its policy so the state could work with the Meijer Foundation.

State Rep. David Hildenbrand, R-Grand Rapids, pushed the bill that simply changed the park’s name.

“It ended up in legislation saying, ‘Thou Shall Call it Fred Meijer State Park Trail and come up with new guidelines because the previous naming policy was pretty sparse,’ “ Herta said.

So, there are questions like: What is fair value? If $1 million buys the name of a 92-mile long state park, in perpetuity, what do you get for $5 million? Is everything up for sale? Could the Pere Marquette State Forest become Wal-Mart Woods? Or should only new (donated) forest lands be named after a prospective donor? Or none at all?

What will happen when the asphalt has to be replaced and a different donor steps forward on the White Pine Trail? Mr. Meijer’s offer did not involve paying for maintenance in perpetuity.

“We are trying to develop a defensible position,” Herta said. “One of the more difficult items is determining fair value.”


Herta said the work is expected to be complete some time this year. The new guidelines and rules will be made public then.

We can only hope that the DNR, as it is forced to become more of a marketer, never loses a grip on its primary mission: the conservation and protection of Michigan’s natural resources.

Hires Root Beer Falls is one I’d rather not see while traveling in Tahquamenon Country.


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