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Reporter's Notebook: It's all in a DNR staff member's head

The James Scott Fountain at Belle Isle State Park, Detroit.

This story was updated to include a link to the 2015 Event Price Structure.

After two weeks and several requests via email, telephone, and in person, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources has finally revealed information which should have been easily available to anyone.

Ever since the DNR took over management of the city of Detroit’s Belle Isle, the DNR has been quick to ticket visitors for driving too fast or drinking alcohol in the park without a permit, and quick to enforce park rules that had been forgotten long ago because the city of Detroit hadn’t enforced them for years.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Belle Isle is popular with professional photographers and their clients because of scenic backdrops and views of the Detroit skyline.

One of those rules came as a surprise to a group of photographers I follow on Facebook, the Southeast Michigan Photographers. The DNR charged what many considered to be pretty steep fees for using the park for photo shoots or videos. One member posted a 2014 list (pdf) which stated charges of up to $1500 for a photo shoot lasting more than four hours, $1600/day for commercial, movie, or documentary filming, and $500 for a student filming fee. (I can’t imagine a lot of student film makers could afford that fee.)

I called the DNR and was referred to Belle Isle State Park manager Karis Floyd. He indicated these fees were just a continuation of the city of Detroit’s fee structure. “This is not new with DNR. We kept it in place. The only difference is the city didn’t really enforce it,” Floyd explained.

And, he added the DNR lowered the fees.

Well, that should make people happy. So, I asked for a copy of the new fees.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
The Douglas MacArthur bridge photographed from Belle Isle.

Floyd referred me to the Belle Isle event coordinator Darlisa Rickman. I talked to Ms. Rickman who assured me she’d email me a copy of the fee structure. I would get it the next day, Friday, July 3, she assured me. I didn’t receive it.

Monday, I sent an email reminder. No response.

I needed to interview a source in Detroit, so I went early and stopped by the Belle Isle White House to see Ms. Rickman in person. I asked if I could get a copy of the price list. The answer, “No.” Then she explained that it was on her old computer and she transferred the information to a flash drive when she got a new computer. Then she lost the flash drive, so there wasn’t a piece of paper or electronic document to give me. I asked, where the information was kept, if she didn’t have a copy? “In my head,” she replied.

I think it’s great that Ms. Rickman is sharp enough to keep all the permit prices for the many different venues and events in her head for quick retrieval, but I questioned whether that was the proper way for a State of Michigan agency to keep track of the fees it charges.

She once again assured me that she would send me the permit fees soon, but explained she was very busy.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Ryan Southen is a Detroit photographer. He only recently became aware of fees at Belle Isle. He says he was shocked by how high they are.

While waiting for the documentation of the “much cheaper fees,” I met with Ryan Southen of Ryan Southen Photography at Belle Isle State Park. He’s a Detroit resident who shoots weddings, engagement photos and the like with a city-centric approach. He told me he was shocked at the prices the DNR was charging. He said prior to the state takeover, outside of wedding photos at the conservatory, he didn’t think photographers were required to get permits.

He says if the DNR enforces the use permit fees, he’ll take his chances of getting caught or just shoot somewhere else, saying “Detroit has many other beautiful areas.”

During my interview with Belle Isle State Park manager Karis Floyd he said, “We’re not out ticketing people. We’re just asking you to be honest,” by voluntarily paying the permit fees.

He said the fees are necessary because some photographers disturb other park visitors, blocking them from areas because they're using it for a shoot.

"For example, a person was doing a model shoot at Scott Fountain without a permit. She wanted to toss me out of the park along with everyone else trying to visit the fountain that day," Floyd said, adding that's why photo shoots need to be scheduled and permit fees paid.

But, I still hadn’t seen the new fees. Neither had anyone else to my knowledge.

I waited a few more days then sent an email to Karis Floyd explaining his employee had not yet sent a copy of the event fees to me. I didn’t get a response to my email.

A few days later I called the DNR headquarters in Lansing. I was told by the Public Information Officer he would notify the state’s parks superintendent.

The very next day, Friday, July 17, two weeks after my first request, I got a friendly email from Darlisa Rickman. She sent me the list of new and somewhat cheaper fees, apologizing for the delay.

Later that day I also got a call from Scott Pratt, Chief of Southern Field Operations for DNR's Parks and Recreation. He told me he'd be pleased to send me a copy of the fee structure if I'd been unable to locate it.

It's hard to locate something that's stored away in someone's memory.

The fee structure can be found here

Support for the Detroit Journalism Cooperative on Michigan Radio comes from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Renaissance Journalism's Michigan Reporting Initiative, and the Ford Foundation.

Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Public from 1998-2010.