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More Woes for Rain Forest

Angie Meng

The Daily Iowan

November 10, 2005

[Note: This material is copyright by The Daily Iowan, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of The Daily Iowan.]

A controversial $180-million rain-forest project set for Coralville will not be able to collect extra tax dollars until Iowa Environmental/Education Project officials find matching, non-federal funds for a $50 million grant issued last year.

Under an initiative from Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and approved by the Senate on Wednesday, project organizers must find the $50 million by Dec. 1, 2007 - or the existing grant money will be snatched away.

Until the Iowa Environmental/Education Project shows its ability to collect the money, the federal tax dollars cannot be "frittered away," Grassley said.

"When finished, [the project] will be a tourist destination and a leading environmental-education center," the Republican senator said in a statement. "However, the project will never become a reality if the majority of the funding isn't raised from private benefactors and other sources."

Of the $50 million appropriated in September 2004, approximately $2.9 million has already been drained from the total, said Beth Levine, an employee in Grassley's office.

The project's executive director, David Oman, could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.

"I think the senator's intentions were always for the grant money to go towards construction costs," Coralville City Councilor John Weihe said. "If Coralville were directly involved in the process, we could raise that money, but, so far, the [project] people haven't asked us to be involved at all."

Although the grant was earmarked at $50 million, only $48 million is available for the project, because of standard government deductions, said Brian Quirke, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Energy. So far, project coordinators have spent $2 million on "allowable expenses."

The Department of Energy must approve all such expenditures.

"We have about 100 pages on what allowable funds are," Quirke said. The rain-forest project is "a very careful grantee. [Officials] touch base with us before they even spend the money."

But included in these "allowable expenses" is Oman's salary, which is typical of large construction grants, Quirke said.

Officials were also somewhat confused about the site where the $50 million is designated to be spent. Councilor John Lundell said Coralville officials don't know if the $50 million grant was set for a rain-forest project anywhere in Iowa or specifically for the one in Coralville.

"No one has been able to figure it out," he said. "I've heard both ways."

Quirke said that as far as he can tell, nothing in the law prevents officials from giving the OK to relocate the project from Coralville.

Because Congress gave the Department of Energy $50 million to fund the project and oversee progression, the power to move the rain forest lies with federal lawmakers, he said.

But as for moving the project, Quirke said Congress is "dodging that question like crazy."

The first contract between the Energy Department and project organizers designated Coralville as the location, but the new stipulation approved Wednesday indicates Iowa as the site for the rain forest, not Coralville.