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Rainforest "Has No Context"

Dubuque Museum Officials Show Some Interest in the Educational Aspects of the Project

Emily Kittle

Dubuque Telegraph Herald

January 8, 2006

[Note: This material is copyright by the Dubuque Telegraph Herald, 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 Dubuque Telegraph Herald.]

While communities around the state vie to play host to Iowa's controversial rainforest, the caretakers of Dubuque's river museum are making it clear they are only interested if the proposed project makes sense.

And Jerry Enzler, executive director of the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium, asserts a rainforest - at least the current concept - doesn't work in Iowa.

"To us, it's a matter of context," Enzler said during a recent meeting with the Telegraph Herald Editorial Board. "A rainforest in the middle of Des Moines or Coralville (Iowa) has no context."

Museum and city officials are intrigued by the educational draw of The Environmental Project's plan, but they are distancing themselves from a rainforest proposal that has drawn the ire of congressional leaders who see it as nothing more than a boondoggle.

The proposed project is pegged at about $180 million and originally was planned for Coralville. The project's board of directors last month voted unanimously to revisit the site selection, triggering a competitive courtship among more than a half-dozen Iowa cities hoping to land The Environmental Project and its $50 million in federal funding.

Dubuque officials say they have their own ideas.

The National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium is planning its second phase, a multimillion-dollar expansion that would "tell the story of America's rivers."

"We want to continue to establish that our facility is a place for people, not just in Iowa, but in the country and globally to come to learn about water," said Teri Goodmann, the museum's development director. "We start with the Mississippi, so that's really where we are heading."

The second phase - which would double the current museum's size - would include a National River Research and Conservation Center in association with the Smithsonian. Goodmann says an educational campus exploring the rivers of America and the world makes sense in a state bordered by the Mississippi River.

Also among the plans for phase 2 is a children's museum, a 3D big-screen theater and an outdoor amphitheater.

Museum officials stress city taxpayers won't be on the hook for the project, although they hope to generate state and federal dollars. Enzler said the museum does not intend to borrow for the project.

"We don't have any debt, and we have no intention of creating any debt," he said, adding that the first elements of the expansion could open within four years.

The local museum currently has an endowment fund of $5 million with a long-range vision to grow to $25 million to support ongoing education.

And the project is going forward, local officials say, with or without The Environmental Project.

"We're not vying or competing to be selected by them. We are offering them an opportunity to bring some of their ideas and the funding to a project that works," Enzler said. "They have some very strong ideas we concur with (including) making sure that education happens in an innovative and exciting way with inquiry-based learning."

And Enzler says the group brings something else: "They also have $50 million."

Despite the high-profile nature of the rainforest concept, Enzler said the idea isn't set in stone. Language in the agreement doesn't specify a rainforest.

"The $50 million is tied to an environmental and educational project in Iowa, and that's all it says," he said.

Museum and city officials want to make sure that any expansion is something Dubuque can be proud of. And they say their vision could accomplish that.

"We don't think that would be the butt of Jay Leno jokes," Enzler said.

David Oman, executive director of The Environmental Project, said the rainforest concept is only one piece of the project's pie, which also could include an aquarium, IMAX-like theater, prairie and wetland exhibits, and virtual-reality experiences. But a rainforest element "certainly is in the plan today," Oman said.

"It's the most diverse ecosystem on the planet by far, and one could argue that it's also the most threatened," he said. "It holds the promise of being a wonderful teaching tool."

To what scale the rainforest is recreated, though, remains to be seen.

"Many of the decisions still remain to be made and would need to be tailored to the site where the project ultimately gets built," said Oman, who predicts that "serious discussion" regarding site selection will occur closer to April.

Enzler says the rainforest group sees the viability of the Dubuque concept, which has a unique direction.

"They still hold out some hope that they might be able to build their grand vision, but they also recognize the expertise of what we're already doing from the environmental education perspective," Enzler said.