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Examining Rain Forest "Facts"

Jim Walters

Iowa City Press-Citizen

December 3, 2003

[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.]

A widely accepted rule of fund raising is that at least half the necessary money for any new project should be pledged or in hand before the first public announcement is even made. It's been almost seven years since Des Moines entrepreneur Ted Townsend unveiled his idea for an enclosed tropical rain forest in Iowa. This scheme has moved through three cities, added and lost features (K-12 school and office building out, prairies and wetlands in), and now moved center stage in a national debate about pork barrel projects. But, we have yet to see any accounting of the real money, local or otherwise, that has actually been raised to carry it out.

It has been widely reported that Townsend has pledged $10 million. Who else has pledged? And how much? Usually, nonprofit or charitable campaigns are eager to announce not only the pledges of generous benefactors but also a running total of contributions from the general public. We have seen no such record of any contributions to this project, only an increasingly tiresome campaign to get government assistance.

Former Iowa governor Bob Ray, current chairman of the Iowa Child Institute, the organization established to promote the rain forest, called a critical Press-Citizen editorial on Nov. 21 ("There's just nothing 'Iowa' about project") the "most inaccurate" he's ever read and makes a number of specific challenges on "the facts." Let's look at each one:

This project is too about Iowa, since it has "recreated" tallgrass prairie and wetland. Leaving aside the fact the these small features will be vastly less than the real Iowa wetlands and prairies that were lost during Ray's term as governor, they seem to have been added only to fluff-up the project, whether appropriate to the location or not. Iowa has actual wetlands and prairies that should be protected or restored. Why shouldn't this money go toward these?

The plants and animals won't be plastic. Well, a rain forest is trees. Mature trees. Unless they're going to be ripped up and transported from a real rain forest (God forbid), they'll have to be grown on site. That won't generate much of a forest anytime soon; ergo, expect plastic trees. And even if all the plants and animals were real, the entire rain forest is still artificial.

The project will pay for itself. Really? Then why isn't it up and running after seven years? Why the continuing hustle for tax dollars?

There will be many more than just 300 minimum wage jobs. OK, how many? Ray says "500 well-paying construction jobs over three years." How many at 40 hours-a-week for 50 weeks-a-year? He insists there will be plenty of ""scientists, researchers, and teachers," too. OK, how many? And who is going to pay their salaries?

Children will benefit from more than just field trips to the rain forest. Given school budgets and schedules, it's uncertain that many of those 600,000 K-12 students within 120 miles of Coralville will be able to afford even a field trip (and if you doubt this, try to schedule a trip for your child's class to any of the worthy sites our area now offers). Does Ray really think that this artificial rain forest is going to provide new information, which could not be obtained from many other sources at a fraction of the cost, worthy of scholastic attention?

The project was not rejected by Des Moines and Cedar Rapids. This is pure obfuscation on Ray's part. I was at one central Iowa presentation given by Ted Townsend. It went over like a lead balloon. And if Cedar Rapids didn't breathe a sigh of relief when Iowa Child left town, they sure didn't put up any fight before they dried off their hankies.

The late Louise Noun was one Des Moines civic leader who spoke unequivocally about the misplaced priorities of building a rain forest when the city couldn't even upgrade its antiquated library. "Before we seriously embark on such an expensive venture," she said, "let's get our own priorities straight and see that our basic educational institutions are up to standard and, preferably, above standard."

While politicians scramble to shower largesse on Townsend's scheme, it is more than real Iowa wetlands, prairies, lakes and streams that are threatened. Beaches and restrooms at parks are being closed. Endangered species programs are gutted. The popular aquarium at the Guttenberg locks -- with real Iowa river fish and more than 20,000 visitors a year -- will be closed for want of $5,000 in state funding. None of this honors what Ray says Iowans cherish: quality education and caring for the environment. Let's get our priorities back in order.

Jim Walters is a groundskeeper at the University of Iowa. He is a member of the Writers' Group, a corps of local residents who write regular opinions for the Press-Citizen.

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