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The Incredible Shrinking Rain Forest

Michael Judge

Wall Street Journal

March 9, 2006

[Note: This material is copyright by the Wall Street Journal, 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 Wall Street Journal.]

Iowans are a proud and famously practical people. So when Des Moines millionaire Ted Townsend, heir to a fortune earned manufacturing meat-processing equipment (a practical endeavor), proposed creating a manmade, indoor, 4.5 acre "rain forest" in the heart of corn country (a somewhat impractical endeavor), many Iowans scoffed.

Despite an initial $10 million donation by Mr. Townsend and his Iowa Center for Health in a Loving Democracy (Child) Institute, what is now called the Environmental Project bounced around the state for years without gaining much traction, let alone financial backing. That all changed in 2003, however, when Chuck Grassley, Republican chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and a self-described "fiscal conservative," tagged a massive energy bill with a $50 million earmark to bring Mr. Townsend's dream here to Coralville, a thriving Eastern Iowa community near the University of Iowa and the Iowa 80 Truckstop (aka "The World's Largest Truckstop").

Overnight, Iowans found the "Coralville Rain Forest" and its backers the object of ridicule from pork-barrel watchdogs across the political spectrum. The "Iowa Pork Fest" made the network news. This newspaper quipped that for $50 million in federal funds "we could send the whole town on a rain forest vacation." "Build it and they will come" became the new state motto.

As time passed, the spotlight faded. But here in Iowa the struggle to parlay $50 million in federal grant money into a $150 million "world class" environmental-education complex continues. Today, it's worth examining how this particular earmark came about, and why it's failed to make substantial progress on the ground, despite the largess of Mr. Townsend, Mr. Grassley and the American taxpayer.

It's public record that the lead lobbyist for Mr. Townsend's Child Institute was John W. Conrad III, an Iowa native and former "special assistant" to Sen. Grassley, as Mr. Conrad dutifully described himself when he filed his lobby registration form. What was not included is the fact that Mr. Conrad was paid $69,500 by Mr. Townsend and the Child Institute to lobby his former boss to earmark funds for an unprecedented project described as "nonprofit education." There is, of course, nothing unlawful, or even unusual, in this. K Street is crawling with former congressional aides who are paid large sums to influence the politicians they once relied on for a relatively measly paycheck. What is unusual is the return on investment: $50 million is, by any measure, a hefty earmark, right up there with the $223 million in federal earmarks for Alaska's infamous (now abandoned) "bridge to nowhere."

Yet despite the high profile of the project and Sen. Grassley's generous boost, the Environmental .Project has not raised a dime in private financial backing, at least none that has been announced publicly. Moreover, the management of the project has been widely criticized for missing numerous deadlines, switching architects in midstream and strong-arming the local government in Coralville over land-use and municipal-financing issues.

Meanwhile, the burn rate has been considerable. According to Department of Energy records, the Emironmental Project has drawn down $3,735,558 in federal funds, as well as, according to Environmental Project Director David Oman (a former AT&T executive and one-time Republican gubernatorial candidate who earns a salary of $210,000), the entire $10 million donation by Mr. Townsend.

The growing perception in the state that the project was, if not a boondoggle, then a money pit, led Sen. Grassley to pull the plug on federal funds in November last year, passing legislation that froze further outlays until the Environmental Project raised $50 million in matching funds. If it fails to do 'so by December 2007, the grant will be withdrawn.

Mr. Oman says he welcomed Sen. Grassley's new conditions for the grant and that "putting a fuse on it" gave "everyone a sense of urgency." Beyond "urgency," Sen. Grassley's amendment, which was buried in another spending bill, also provided Mr. Oman and his team the "portability" they sought. Folded into the "matching funds" language was a clause that made the $50 million in federal funds no longer site-specific. In other words, the money ceased to be linked to Coralville, as it was in the original law. This gave a certain leverage when dealing with local officials.

So instead of a slap on the wrist, the Grassley amendment has allowed the Environmental Project to once again shop the rain forest around. "A number of people concluded that the change made sense," Mr. Oman told me over the telephone from his office in Des Moines. "This is a good thing, it allows us to have a marketplace approach, to learn about and receive some great offers of land and also some financial offers."

Once the amendment passed, Mr. Oman and his staff surprised Coralville officials (who'd already invested $17 million to clear and prepare the site) by opening up the bidding to all Iowa cities. "We were very disappointed in that change," says John Lundell of Coralville City Council. "We didn't see it coming, but we had heard rumors that they were looking elsewhere. But when we asked they would tell us that Corahille remained their No. 1 choice. We were surprised and disappointed." According to Mr. Oman, six Iowa cities, including Dubuque, Des Moines and Coralville, are in the running for what some Iowans are now calling the Incredible Shrinking Rain Forest. Mr. Townsend's initial vision of the project had a price tag north of $300 million. That figure's dropped to somewhere between $120 million and $150 million. Nonetheless, Mr. Oman says he and his three-member site committee will make a major announcement regarding location, design and financing at the end of this month.

Councilman Lundell says Coralville hasn't given up on the Environmental Project yet. "Many of the folks involved are worn out. They don't want rhetoric or sound bites in the media. They want proof that sufficient funds have been raised." A practical request. Meanwhile, Mr. Townsend is devoting more and more time to his "Great Ape Trust of Iowa," a research sanctuary he's built in Des Moines to study the communication habits of primates -- really.
Mr. Judge, a freelance journalist, is a Hoover Institution media fellow.