BENZONIA, MI — On April 16, 1995, in one of my last articles as a staff correspondent with the New York Times, I wrote this assessment of American environmentalism’s evolving challenges. “The movement that changed the nation’s environmental ethic a generation ago is reshaping itself, and the most important aspect of that effort is a new openness to what works and what doesn’t in environmental protection.”
Six days later, on the 25th anniversary of Earth Day, I met at Beulah’s Brookside Inn with Traverse City environmental attorney Jim Olson and a few more regional green heroes and formally incorporated the non-profit Michigan Land Use Institute.
The Brookside closed its doors a few years ago. And earlier this year, as MLUI approached the 19th anniversary of its founding on today’s 44th Earth Day, I received notice and a survey from the organization. It asked for my thoughts on a branding project that may very well conclude with a change in the Institute’s name. Holy focus group, Batman! What works and what doesn’t in environmental protection may include an alteration in identities.
Now, right here, allow me to acknowledge that an MLUI name change is personal. But it’s not sour grapes. I was 38 years old in 1995, and a year into a life-changing scrap with the state’s natural gas industry over drilling practices in northern Michigan’s Antrim shale. Benzie in the 1990s also was Michigan’s second fastest growing county. Among the legion of proposals popping up around here was one to turn US 31 north of Luddington into a four-lane highway. I was convinced that a professionally staffed group that focused on the ecological and economic consequences of development could do important work and prosper financially.
I put $13,000 of my own money into the organization that first year. Ted Curran, an important ally and supporter, added management guidance and welcome funding. Florence Barone and Arlin Wasserman put their keen intelligence to work. We got lucky in the summer of 1995 when 27-year-old Hans Voss, the MLUI executive director since 2000, showed up at our door looking for work. We had an active board that included Gary Appel, an educator, and whose wife, Mimi Appel, helped with development. These and a host of other people — Dick Hitchingham, Gerard Grabowski, Jack Gyr, Marty Jablonski — helped get the joint rolling in a way that steadily built our record of pragmatic advocacy, and keen communications skills.
In 1998 Stewart Udall, the Secretary of the Interior during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, and a close friend, called the Michigan Land Use Institute the most successful new environmental organization in the United States. We were smart and fearless. I was with Hans when conservative Governor John Engler announced in 1998 that there would be no natural gas drilling in Antrim County’s Jordan River Valley, which we described as the Yosemite of northern Michigan. I was with him again several years later when the state Legislature and Congress, in separate votes, outlawed drilling for oil and gas beneath the Great Lakes. Hans led both campaigns.
Our work led to natural river designations to protect the Manistee and the Pine rivers, the first such designations in a generation. Our organizing and journalism convinced Petoskey and Traverse City to replace expensive bypasses with smarter, land-conserving, and energy efficient alternatives, including more transit. With penetrating reporting, well disseminated, we convinced the state Supreme Court to unanimously reverse a demoralizing ruling by an Appellate Court stacked with property rights advocates and allow every citizen clear access to Great Lakes beaches. The Institute developed a peerless local foods program that helped make fresh home grown food an important economic development strategy in Northwest Michigan and a model that inspired other communities.
Our greatest achievement was to be among the select group of organizations that helped define Smart Growth and make its energy efficiency, transit-friendly, community-strengthening, ecology-restoring, and compact walkable land use principles the design standard for cities and suburbs across the United States. Smart Growth is a central reason that New York, Washington, Boston, Chicago, Seattle, Denver, Boise, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Louisville, Traverse City, Grand Rapids and many more American cities are thriving again.
By the time I left in 2007, the Michigan Land Use Institute had attained the prominence and stature that accrues to an important and well-recognized civic institution. Our peerless staff, and a good number of alumni, were recognized across Michigan and the country as among the best in the business. Board members included Cherry Republic founder Bob Sutherland, former Michigan First Lady Helen Milliken, and Howard Tanner, the former state DNR director and limnologist that introduced the salmon fishery to Lake Michigan. The MLUI budget rose above $1 million annually in 2001 and stayed at that level throughout the first decade of this century.
Last week in an email I contacted Hans, notified him that I was preparing this article, and requested an interview. I wanted to know what was prompting the consideration of a name change.
In my experience, a name change implies a need to adjust to some problem. I know a teen who changed names to alter the difficult relationship she had with her family. I know a woman who changed her first name and returned to her maiden name as strong signals to end a difficult marriage. The FBI alters identities to keep its witnesses safe. Fugitives change their name to avoid discovery by law enforcement.
Hans declined the interview request and didn’t identify the source of the idea for a change in names. He described MLUI’s reassessment project this way: “Like any effective organization or business, we take time to evaluate our goals and sharpen our ability to achieve them. And this year, we have gone further to evaluate the MLUI brand. Very simply we want to understand whether the way in which we communicate the organization’s work is well understood by a variety of stakeholders and the public at large. We have conducted a set of interviews and launched a public survey. In total over 400 people have shared their insight and thoughts about MLUI. We are in the process now of tabulating that input. Then we will dig deeper to evaluate the effectiveness of the MLUI brand, and what changes, if any, we should make. I am not sure how this is going to play out. Ultimately our goal is that the brand of MLUI communicates the work and creates as much engagement as possible from a broad audience.”
Change and evolution are mandates for successful people and strong organizations. MLUI’s basic program areas are very similar to what they have always been — energy, transportation, community design, land use reform, economic development.
Its approach and service area are quite different from what they were. The organization’s geographic reach has been significantly trimmed from statewide programs to a 10-county core region surrounding Traverse City, where its home office has been since 2007. That regional identity may be galvanizing the intellectual energy to choose a new name that reflects MLUI’s current program geography.
Following the publication of this article on Earth Day Hans posted a comment (see below) that clarified the Michigan Land Use Institute’s strong revenue stream. With fiscal year 2012/2013 revenue of $1.75 million, the original name doesn’t seem to be hurting the organization’s funding.
A second reason may be a sense of inertia that comes to organizations that aren’t as aware of the places they came from and the record of authentic change they produced. The Institute is a quieter and more genteel organization than it once was. Its work focuses not on direct, occasional fangs-are-bared advocacy, but on pragmatism and implementation. That’s a very tough program strategy in an era comfortable with so readily rejecting good ideas.
My affections for the Institute and its capable director, board, and staff are strong and durable. Whatever it chooses I’ll remain a supporter. I like the original name. After all, it’s the name I gave to a great organization. I’m convinced, though, that changing names is not a solution, in whole or in part, to whatever the Michigan Land Use Institute thinks is eroding public attention or its civic value. Even with a fabulous new name the organization, at least for a few years, will still need to identify itself with this preface: formerly the Michigan Land Use Institute.
— Keith Schneider