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Can Project Leaders Save Rain Forest?


Iowa City Press-Citizen

September 1, 2005

[Note: This material is copyright by the Press-Citizen, 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 Iowa City Press-Citizen.]

Wednesday's announcement by The Environmental Project that its board of directors had brought in a new architect to take control of design of the $180 million enclosed rain forest in Coralville has the potential to uproot the project entirely. As our Adam Pracht reports on the front page today, the five-member Coralville City Council -- frustrated with the change in architects -- appears to have enough votes to kill the project entirely, or at least to drive it to another location.

There is still a chance that the project could be saved, and there is no doubt that Grimshaw Architects, the award-winning British firm that will take its reins, is up to the task -- the firm has designed a number of ecological and biological projects, including the vastly successful Eden Project in Cornwall, England. But to win over the Coralville City Council after a series of delays and setbacks will be difficult at this point.

Ever since Des Moines businessman Ted Townsend introduced the rain forest idea to state leaders, there have been two schools of thought on the viability of the project. Sen. Charles Grassley, an early supporter of the project who helped win the $50 million in federal funding that got the project up and running, was an unlikely champion of what many fiscal conservatives considered a massive pork-barrel project.

Nevertheless, many local residents -- educators, businessmen and politicians -- saw the project as a tremendous opportunity to bring not only tourism to the state of Iowa but to help educate Iowans, and indeed the nation, about issues of environmental protection and preservation as well as the importance of understanding our natural habitat, whether we be in the rain forests of South America or on the plains of the great Midwest. As David Oman, executive director of The Environment Project, told us in a meeting Wednesday, the project's goal is "inspiring generations to learn from nature."

That lofty goal, however, now appears to be threatened by the more practical concerns of local government. Why has this project changed architects at such a crucial time in its fund-raising efforts? And will the new plans still match the requirements in the draft land-transfer agreement, which the Coralville City Council has given a make-or-break Sept. 20 deadline? As City Council member Jean Schnake told our reporter, "To me it's just more spin. ... So they've got an architect. They had an architect. They had a project that was supposed to be outstanding." She later added, "How many times can we start over?"

That's a question the City Council, The Environmental Project and the people of the Iowa City-Coralville area will have to answer for themselves. What's clear here is that the local government has been vigilant from the beginning in assuring that the decision-making process in this massive project is transparent and that its leaders -- both in government and in the private sector -- are held to account. Wednesday's announcement that the project may have to incur debt in lieu of funding has made this commitment to vigilance even more crucial.

There is still a chance this project will be completed, and there is little doubt that Grimshaw Architects, if the funds are there, will erect an impressive structure. Either way, our local leaders should be applauded for keeping the public interest at the forefront of their thoughts and deliberations.