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Can't See the Forest:
Lessons from a $180 Million Terrarium

Nicholas Johnson

Environmental Law Society
University of Iowa College of Law

Boyd Law Building
Iowa City, Iowa

January 27, 2006

Note: For another 100 pages of supporting textual comment, with links to hundreds of documents, including 26 by Nicholas Johnson, see his rain forest Web site at Anything in the text below which is not linked to a source can be found somewhere on that site.

Origins and Ridicule

For nearly ten years Iowans have been hearing about a proposal to build a rain forest in their state.

The idea was originally the brain child of a wealthy and well intentioned Des Moines industrialist by the name of Ted Townsend. The story has it that the idea came to him after a trip to Africa. Even if every Iowa child could not have the experience he had just enjoyed he at least wanted to make it possible for them to visit an indoor version. One day, as he was walking on his home treadmill, Mr. Townsend decided that he cared enough about this idea to pledge $10 million of his own money to its creation.

The Iowa rain forest project has operated under a great number of changing names. Indeed, that is indicative of one of its more serious problems -- its lack of focus, its failure to define itself. But it began with the name that its Web site and foundation still bear, "The Iowa Child Project." "Child," Mr. Townsend explained, was an acronym for "Center for Health in a Loving Democracy."

Ultimately he would give campaign contributions to Senator Chuck Grassley, and $65,000 to a former associate of the Senator's, as he dreamed of a federal grant that would help him reach what was originally a $300 million goal.

It is easy to make fun of "a rain forest in a cornfield," as one critic described it. Humor columnist Dave Barry, and Iowa City's "Dr. Science" (Dan Coffey) savaged it. The TV program "West Wing" used it as an example of pork projects. Even Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert took a poke at his fellow Republican, Iowa's Senator Chuck Grassley, for inserting a $50 million line item pork project, or "earmark," in the federal budget -- a practice now under attack in the rhetoric regarding campaign finance reform. Senator Grassley's gift from an ungrateful nation even prompted its own well-written and often hilarious blog site, the Iowa Pork Forest. Elsewhere a columnist asked, "What's next? How about a range of the Rockies in south Florida? Maybe fields of blooming cactus in Maine?" An editorial cartoonist picked up the challenge, picturing the effort to sell a Brazilian city council on the idea of an Iowa corn field under glass next to one of their real rain forests. One newspaper reader suggested, "I think a re-creation of Ice Age Iowa would be a cooler summertime attraction than a rain forest."

Yesterday's famed Economist magazine of London, in a major spread on campaign finance reform, chose none other than Iowa's own Ted Townsend and Senator Chuck Grassley as its poster boys for Wasington's "culture of corruption":

Lobbying can't be banned—Americans have a constitutional right to “petition the government for a redress of grievances”. And they have an awful lot of grievances. For instance, Ted Townsend, a meat-packing tycoon, is aggrieved that his home state of Iowa has no indoor rainforest. He's been pitching the idea for several years: it would be “the coolest new attraction on Earth”, not to mention a “goose that will lay enormous golden eggs” for Iowa.

In 2003, Mr Townsend gave $3,000 in campaign contributions to his Republican senator, Chuck Grassley. The next year Mr Grassley secured $50m from the federal budget for Mr Townsend's rainforest. There was absolutely nothing illegal about this. Mr Grassley was entitled to accept Mr Townsend's cash, and he no doubt sincerely believes that an indoor rainforest will benefit Iowa.

This story illustrates why influence-peddling is such a problem. Individual lawmakers have immense power to take money out of the public purse for the narrowest of purposes. Any one of them can slip an extra paragraph into a bill to secure funding for a project that may have nothing to do with the bill's stated purpose. Such “earmarks” are often inserted at the last moment and pass without scrutiny.

Projects funded this way are typically those that make sense on someone else's dime. (Iowans, weirdly, have been somewhat reluctant to chip in more than peanuts to their rainforest, prompting Senator Grassley to say he may cut back the federal contribution.) Earmarks are also an open invitation to corruption, since you only have to incentivise one congressman to win a fat slice of federal cash, and there are lots of legal ways to do it.

* * *
The worst offenders are usually the most senior members of Congress. Because they sit on powerful committees, they have more power to shower interest groups with taxpayers' money. Those interest groups reward them with campaign donations. After a while, incumbents become so good at raising money that they are impossible to dislodge. In his last race, Senator Grassley spent 47 times more than his challenger and beat him by 42 percentage points.

["Pork and Scandals: Hobbling the Lobbyists," The Economist, January 26, 2006, and also available here.]

For the most part I've tried to avoid making fun of the project. I maintain that I am not an opponent of this project, that I am "neither booster nor basher." All I am after is "Just the facts, Ma'am." The facts plus some rational analysis and common sense. But occasionally the frustration gets the better of me.

One of my frustrations has been the willingness of public officials and media to repeat without reflection the claims of the promoters public relations campaigns as if they were facts. They speak of the rain forest as if it is already built. They seemingly ignore the fact that a "benefit-cost analysis" requires one to consider costs as well as benefits; that a "rewards and risks" evaluation requires a consideration of risks as well as rewards.

My frustration over this led me to slip, in one of my numerous newspaper op ed columns on the subject, when I wrote, "Are there wonderful things one could do with a 200-foot dome covering 4.5 acres? Absolutely. And there are wonderful things one could do with pigs that fly. In fact, put them in the rain forest's caterpillar-like structure, charge admission, and you'd have a real Iowa tourist attraction." [Nicholas Johnson, "Time to Build or Get Off the Lot," Iowa City Press-Citizen, April 11, 2005.]

Nature and Environmental Law

When I think about the word "environment," or "environmental law," I tend to think of nature.

My last year in law school it was still possible to carry a full load of courses, do editorial work on the law review, hold a couple of part time jobs, and take the bar exam before graduation. Since my clerkship didn't begin until fall, I was already admitted to the bar, and my wife and I couldn't afford to pay rent anyway, we spent the summer hiking and camping in every national park west of the Mississippi.

When I was clerking in Washington I walked with Justice William O. Douglas along the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal and towpath in our effort to bring attention to the value of this historic gem of nature now protected as a National Historic Park. Later, when I returned to Washington from teaching at Berkeley my family would regularly visit the Shenendoah National Park, walk the Appalachian Trail, and visit the wilds of West Virginia.

My appreciation of nature began with my parents, especially my mother, but expanded with the teachings of a Mesquakie elder whom I visited regularly in the mid-1970s.

So this background is a part of the explanation for the perspective that I bring to issues of environmental law. For me, environmental law is simply the legal embodiment of our increasing awareness that if we care about human survival there are demands of nature that require limits on our greed. There are limits to what we ironically call the "progress" and "development" that produce global warming, air unfit to breath, water unfit to drink, the extinction of essential species along with the habitats on which they rely, and so forth. In short, whether or not one buys into the "Gaia hypothesis" as a scientific "truth," we would be well advised to behave as if we believed it to be true.

Which Side Are You On?

Sadly, one of the truths that you will very soon confront is that lawyers who represent clients engaged in toxic dumping, clear cutting, strip mining, and polluting our air and water are able to charge those clients more than lawyers can charge clients who are home owners, citizens groups, and the environmental organizations who are fighting the polluters. Just as our nation puts its most brilliant scientists and engineers to work on weapons of war, and its most gifted creative artists, composers and writers to creating manipulative advertising, so our most skilled lawyers tend to be attracted to the financial rewards associated with managing the campaign contributions and litigation of corporate clients engaged in otherwise punishable behavior. (As I have said elsewhere, it's not so much that corporate officials are violating the laws, the more serious problems come from the fact that they are writing the laws.)

Thus, you must very soon be prepared to answer the question in the old union song, "Which side are you on, boys? Which side are you on?" Will you be one of those lawyers who make it possible for the polluters to profit? Or will you take the side of those making it ever more costly, if not criminal, to do so?

In the process of pondering this life-determining question you will discover that, once you are earning sufficiently above the poverty line to enjoy adequate housing, nutrition and health, a great irony enters the economic equation. It turns out that there is an inverse relationship between freedom and wealth; the richer you are, the more money you must earn to sustain your so-called "life style," the less freedom you have to follow your heart instead of your pocket book.

Like doctors offered the opportunity to specialize in "diseases of the rich," you too will be offered a seat on what I have called "the solid gold train." Gourmet food and drink, designer clothes, and expensive jewelry will be yours for the lifetime duration of the ride. In exchange, all you must sacrifice is the opportunity to get off this train that never stops -- and, of course, the use of your brain during the ride. But not to worry; it will be returned to you at your destination.

It's tempting to get on that train. Especially when the only other road appears to be a dusty path where lawyers are slowly walking through abandoned, polluted urban centers, worn out land barely sustaining rural poverty, housing developments sitting on toxic waste dumps, along streams no longer capable of sustaining fish, huge fruit and vegetable fields with laborers stooped over plants sprayed with cancer-causing pesticides, or once beautiful, living wilderness now transformed into barren, eroded land.

Those lawyers also enjoy many rewards, but being paid top dollar is, usually, not among them.

It's your choice.

"Which side are you on?"

Do "Environmental" Attractions Create Environmentalists?

The question before us at the moment, however, is what an indoor rain forest has to do with any of this.

And that is, in turn, a subset of the much larger question of the relationship between a rather wide variety of attractions having something to do with nature, on the one hand, and the popular understanding of, and support for, the preservation of nature and species, and the utility of environmental laws, on the other.

Following what is alleged to have been an Animal Liberation Front bit of vandalism at Seashore Hall I wrote a column that I thought a quite moderate, constructive effort to bring the two warring sides together. [Nicholas Johnson, "Can [Animal Rights] Research Conflict be Resolved?" Iowa City Press-Citizen, December 23, 2004.] I was wrong; both sides considered it too extreme.

But in the context of the question I've just posed, we must recognize that there is debate regarding the ethics and wisdom of zoos, aquariums, and rain forests with animals -- even if they do raise environmental awareness. How you may feel about the moral and ethical issues involved in removing animals from their native habitats and keeping them in captivity for our education, research and amusement is one you'll have to resolve for yourself. That's the cost side of the equation.

On the benefit side, it seems to me intuitively that exposure to nature, whether for real, in zoos, or even in films or other media, would usually have a positive impact on the viewer's sense of the value of nature and legal efforts to preserve it. But I have no data to support that intuition.

What of trees? In her late 1960s song, "Big Yellow Taxi," Joni Mitchell bemoaned that "they took all the trees and put them in a tree museum." If some argue that putting animals in zoos and aquariums is a violation of those animals' rights, is anyone arguing that a "tree museum" violates the trees' rights?

How could a tree sue, anyway? Only if it had standing -- in the legal, rather than the botanical sense; that is, if a court would recognize that a lawyer could represent the legal interests of the tree, separate and apart from the legal standing of, say, members of an environmental organization.

As you probably know, under some circumstances those members would be accorded "standing." They could sue in their own right to protect their interests in the tree. Their suit, their standing, might then have the consequence of benefiting the tree as well, even though it did not have standing and was not a party to the case.

In 1972 Christopher D. Stone addressed this issue in his widely discussed law review article, "Should Trees Have Standing?" 45 S.Cal.L. Rev. 450 (1972). He thought they should. Moreover, his article was cited favorably by Justice Douglas in his dissent to Sierra Club v. Morton, 405 U.S. 727, 741, 742 (1972).

A year later a widely read book appeared, Secret Life of Plants, arguing that plants communicate and have emotions. Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird, Secret Life of Plants (New York: Harper, 1973). I express no view as to those assertions.

Nor am I aware of any suggestion since that time -- even if trees do have standing -- that keeping them in tree museums would be a violation of their legal rights; that legal rights are violated when plants, as distinguished from animals, are taken out of their natural environment and put in our nation's numerous indoor and outdoor botanical gardens -- even the proposed rain forest in Iowa.

So where are we?

There have been those who've argued that cutting down the rain forest to save it -- that is, uprooting trees in a real rain forest and bringing them to Iowa for display in a $180 million terrarium "tree museum" -- is akin to a comment during the Vietnam War that "It became necessary to destroy the town to save it." [Neil Sheehan, A Bright Shining Lie (Vintage, 1989), p. 719.]

A number of folks have suggested that we could fly all of Iowa's children to a real rain forest for $180 million. And one week ago today the author of a Letter to the Editor reported his great find: a Jet Blue discounted fare that would enable every man, woman -- and "Iowa Child" -- to visit a rain forest for a total of $180 million. [David Brewbaker, "Pack Your Bags for the Jungle," Des Moines Register, January 20, 2006.]

But we have no way of dragging the trees into court to protest this project -- or, for that matter, knowing how they might feel about it if we did -- and only intuition to suggest that the humans will benefit.

So let's go back to the comment of mine in an earlier op ed column: "Are there wonderful things one could do with a 200-foot dome covering 4.5 acres? Absolutely." Let's assume that's true. Let's assume one can at least imagine ways of using that space that would relate in some way to the environment and have informational, educational, and entertainment values for people of all ages.

Lessons from a $180 Million Terrarium

Now let's try to square that with what seems to have been the history of this project.

It was first offered to, and rejected by, Des Moines, Ted Townsend's hometown. It was subsequently offered to, and turned down by, Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, Coralville, Dubuque, Des Moines for a second time, and -- though there is some question what the town and county ultimately will decide -- Riverside. Although the rain forest's proponents claim a number of communities are interested in bidding for it, they refuse to name them. Thus, at this point in time the only known remaining possibles are Tiffin and Grinnell.

This morning's papers tell us that two top rain forest executives have just taken other jobs. Both are individuals I know, and for whom I have the highest regard.

Nancy Quellhorst was the project's local vice president and is about to become president of the Iowa City Chamber of Commerce. It is a much more perfect fit for someone with her experience, skills and contacts, on the one hand, and the challenges facing our region on the other, and I think she'll do a spectacular job.

Ted Stilwill, the project's education director, was head of the Iowa Department of Education when I was on the local school board. From my perspective he's one of the nation's best educational policy persons. He could have made an enormous contribution to the educational component of the rain forest project -- if it ever decided to return to Ted Townsend's original dream -- and was never given the opportunity to do that.

Ted has just accepted a position with Learning Point Associates in Chicago and will be improving Illinois' schools. He may not be as well known around this university as our David Skorton, but his departure is another great loss for those who care about quality education in Iowa. [Zack Kucharski, "I.C. Area Chamber's New Leader to Pursue Local, Regional Balance," The Gazette, January 27, 2006, p. 1A; "Ex-Rain Forest Official Gets Job at Chicago Firm," The Gazette, January 27, 2006, p. 1B.]

Something seems to have gone terribly wrong with this venture. The reasons why are worthy of our analysis, not only because of the importance of this project, but because of the lessons they hold for our evaluation of future proposals.

Whether we will, in fact, learn from the rain forest promoters' mistakes remains to be seen.

As Ralph Nader has observed, "This country has more problems than it deserves and more solutions than it applies." Where are those solutions to be found? This used to be the exclusive domain of our nation's libraries. That resource has now been supplemented for most of us by the Internet.

As I used to say as a school board member, "It is highly unlikely that there is any problem, bedeviling any school board, that has not been experienced, identified, studied, resolved and reported on the Internet by one of America's other 17,000 school districts."

The same can be said with regard to the challenges and opportunities confronting attractions and economic development. The Internet is a gold mine of "what works," in the form of proposals for projects, funding schemes, attendance records, and other data.

Here are a few categories of possible rain forest mistakes that a quick Internet search provided. It's hard to say which of the following qualities are most important, but all clearly play a significant role in the success or failure of projects like the rain forest.

Focus. In business we refer to a firm's "core competency." That is, what is it primarily set up to do, what does it do best? Which of its activities take 10 percent of its employees' efforts but produce 90 percent of its profits, and which result in the reverse? By concentrating on the former and cutting back on the latter, a firm can simultaneously increase profits from both reducing costs and  increasing revenues.

Similarly, a project like the rain forest needs to have a core, a focus. What is this thing anyway?

Ted Townsend has another project, near Des Moines. It's called the Great Ape Trust. It may or may not make sense financially, politically and scientifically. I don't know enough about it to say. But there's no question it has a focus. It's to be a research center, where scientists working with the Great Apes will expand our knowledge regarding communication among primates.

His rain forest project, by contrast, began as a $300 million project, was then reduced to $225 million, for most of its life has been described as a $180 million project, and in recent weeks occasionally as costing $150 million.

Its primary element, or purpose, has at one time or another been said to be a K-5 school, an IMAX theater, an indoor rain forest tourist attraction (at one time without animals and later with animals, sometimes with real trees and sometimes with fake plastic tree trunks), a teacher training facility, a scientific research facility, an aquarium, and a place to run pilot projects with energy efficient equipment. When critics noted there wasn't much that tied it to Iowa, the project responded with its proposed prairie. More recently there's been reference to a performance venue as well.

As blogger State 29 put it, taking a line from one of the first Saturday Night Live skits, "It's a floor wax. It's a dessert topping. It's whatever they want it to be."

Obviously, it's very difficult to support -- or even oppose, for that matter -- something so ill-defined and constantly shifting.

Community-based. Successful ventures grow bottom up. Dubuque has an "Envision 2010" community undertaking in which over 2000 ideas from citizens are evaluated and winners selected. Its attractions come from local ideas, tie into local history and environment -- the Mississippi River and the hills -- and are financed locally.

Yesterday's Dubuque Telegraph Herald carried another moving story along these lines. It involves not the 4.5 acres proposed for the rain forest, but 419 acres. Not acres of artificial rain forest, but of Iowa woodlands and prairies. Not at a cost of $180 million, but $1 million. Not a proposal from outside the community, but one originated, supported, and financed locally. Financing not $90 to $170 million short, but a mere $40,000 to go. The contrast neatly illustrates many of the lessons we have to learn from the rain forest's struggles. [Craig Reber, "Land Purchase Project Nears Goal," Dubuque Telegraph Herald, January 26, 2006.]

Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo is supported by locals who not only attend the zoo's nine major attractions, but pay for their construction and operation. The idea to renovate Iowa City's Englert Theater -- which I used to attend as a kid for ten cents, and where I will be ushering at tomorrow evening's performance -- came from residents of this town. They made the plans, raised the money -- ultimately $5 million -- and carried the project to completion.

By contrast, the rain forest, this $180 million project, has raised not one dollar from residents of the Coralville-Iowa City area. It was a proposal from others, "outsiders," and greeted with something between skepticism and ridicule by those residents of eastern Iowa familiar with its history and financial details.

Logical location. Aquariums do best near oceans; Colonial Williamsburg in Williamsburg, Virginia. What works in Iowa? The Living History Farms outside Des Moines look like they belong there. That's because they do. This is Iowa. Dubuque's National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium continues to gain national prominence. There are many reasons why, but one is that it's located on the banks of that Great River. Step out of the museum and you're looking at the very river you've just been learning about. Such projects gain significance from their location in Iowa. A rain forest does not.

Up-front financing. An Atlanta businessman named Bernard Marcus had a dream like that of Ted Townsend. Townsend wanted the world's largest indoor rain forest. Marcus wanted Atlanta to be the site of the world's largest aquarium. Today that aquarium holds some 8 million gallons. (Current talk about the rain forest's aquarium puts it at less than one-tenth that size.) Whether Atlanta is the best location for an aquarium, whether the attendance will be enough to sustain its operating costs, like a number of other issues, remain to be seen. It's just opened. But one thing is clear. Home Depot's Bernard Marcus' gift of $200 million was enough to construct that museum. Unlike the rain forest, the money for Atlanta's aquarium was in hand, up front. Omaha's zoo and Dubuque's museum are locally funded. Neither uses the debt financing that's been one of the most common causes of other projects' downfall.

Compare the rain forest. Rain forest promoters went public without money in hand, raised none from Iowa City-Coralville donors, and now talk of borrowing their matching grant. They went for a year with what they claimed to be $90 million toward their $180 million budget without raising an additional dollar. A $90 million shortfall on a $180 million project has to be conceded to be rather significant.

The $90 million included the $50 million from Senator Grassley, and what promoters called $20 million in land from Coralville. But Senator Grassley has now given promoters the entire state as their territory -- rather than the former designation of Coralville -- in exchange for a condition that they must match the $50 million with private donations before they can use any more of it. Townsend has reportedly pledged, or possibly already paid, $10 million. And there is a mysterious $10 million worth of something from an unnamed energy company. Thus, if the project is not to be in Coralville, and promoters haven't matched the $50 million pork grant, and the energy company money fails to materialize, the promoters are not just $90 million short on a $180 million project, they are $170 million short.

Business plans. The marketplace, the free private enterprise system, has a lot of built-in checks. For starters, entrepreneurs dream of success and fear failure. Before you risk your own time and money, before you undertake the opportunity cost of stopping what you were doing to strike out on a new venture, you want to make very, very sure that you have a substantial probability of success.

No less inclined to risk losses are the venture capitalists and loan officers who are putting their money into your venture. What do they do to reduce their risk? They insist on very well-thought-through, detailed, logical business plans.

Notwithstanding these powerful incentives, notwithstanding the expertise and attention to detail that is brought to bear, the fact remains that of the 800,000 new business start-ups each year a full one-third will have failed within four years.

Now I'd like you to just imagine the risks when promoters play with public money instead of their own.

This was really the core of the rain forest's downfall.

Remember what I said about lack of focus? Well, without focus, without knowing what you're really talking about, it is impossible to create a business plan. Consider the central issue of revenue streams -- operating costs five, ten and more years into the future.

Without business plans there can't be sufficiently detailed construction and operating budgets. And without such details how could anyone evaluate the project and decide if it's practical? They couldn't. So the $90 million the promoters needed to raise was not forthcoming, and their groundbreaking deadlines kept slipping from one year to the next.

Controlling cost overruns. Over-runs are common. Boston's "Big Dig" ran five times budget. So did the Englert ($1 million budget, $5 million cost). The Iraq war may end up 10 times projections ($2 trillion vs. $200 billion). Anyone who's had even relatively minor work done on their house knows how common overruns can be. No one with the rain forest project was ever willing to address the cost overrun issues. How would they propose to pay for them if and when they occurred? Of course, with years of experience, and a staff that has been successfully working together over that time, it's possible to bring in projects ahead of schedule and under budget. The Omaha zoo has a great record in this regard. But the rain forest promoters don't yet have the kind of history that Omaha has.

Environmental impact. Given that this is an event sponsored by the Environmental Law Society I should probably say at least a word or two about the rain forest's environmental impact.

Just because it's now called an Environmental Project doesn't mean the rain forest doesn't have some downside impact on the environment.

I don't pass judgment on any of these assertions, but simply note that it's possible to have some adverse environmental impact from this environmental project.

Transparency. Public officials, media and citizens alike have been frustrated by what is often perceived as the rain forest promoters' stonewalling and unnecessary secrecy. Only last week, in the course of expressing reservations about the project, Riverside Mayor Bill Poch said, "The mistake I feel they have been making is they haven't opened up and given people a chance to ask questions and get answers." The TV reporter covering the story had asked the project for a copy of the draft application they use with cities and was refused. "The reason offered, 'Just because.'" The reporter added, "It is that kind of generic response that has Riverside frustrated." [Steve Nicoles, "Riverside Won't Commit to Rain Forest Money," KCRG-TV9 News, January 19, 2006.] Obviously, such an approach has never been very effective for any project, but especially not in these days of open meetings and public records.

Revenue streams. The rain forest's promoters tended to emphasize their project's potential rather than some of the risks I've been discussing. But even among those willing to take a more measured approach, their emphasis tended to be on construction costs -- the $180 million figure, and the project's difficulty in raising anything like that amount of money.

But truth be told, construction costs are relatively easy -- at least comparatively. It's the operating costs five and ten years later that are the much more serious financial problem.

Assume that the rain forest would be designed as a tourist attraction. Many failed projects started with overly optimistic attendance projections. Although the project's promoters have paid consultants who have given the promoters, in return, assurance that 1.3 million visitors or more will be there every year, independent economists, other attractions' records, and common sense would indicate a probable attendance of no more than half that.

Iowa's population is less than 3 million. Since most attractions' primary draw is from visitors within 80-100 miles, most of the paid gate at the rain forest will be Iowans. Assume for the moment that those in western Iowa -- notwithstanding their easy hop across the Missouri River to the Henry Doorly Zoo's attractions (including a rain forest) in Omaha -- will come to Coralville, or wherever the project settles. To get 1.5 million visitors a year would mean that every man, woman and child in the state of Iowa, from the moment of birth to the moment of death, would have to pass through the rain forest's turnstiles every two years throughout the entirety of their lives.

Or consider what existing Iowa attractions are drawing. Successful Iowa attractions know attendance will range from 65,000 a year (Hoover Library) to 500,000 (Adventureland), and budget realistically. Assuming the rain forest will consistently draw three times Iowa's largest attraction is simply unrealistic.

Yes, Disneyland may get 10 to 15 million visitors a year, and Colonial Williamsburg almost one million. But attendance numbers like that are, for the most part, limited to multi-million-population urban centers that are already destinations in their own right.

Realistic evaluation. One thing about this project I find genuinely puzzling. The rain forest's fundamental problems have been obvious for four years. I wrote about them and so did dozens of others. So why did so many public officials and mass media continue to emphasize what I've called "the 'Wow!' and the wonderful" -- the benefits and rewards -- while virtually ignoring costs, risks and realism?

Another puzzle is the criticism heaped on public policy analysts and skeptics. A skeptical venture capitalist asks questions and is called "a smart businessperson." Why, when citizens ask the very same questions about the rain forest, are they called "naysayers" who "lack vision"?

The University built the Laser Center, confident that, having built it, Iowa would be the destination for "world class" laser scientists and engineers. It didn't happen. The Laser Center was used to store canoes. It turned out that "build it and they will come" only works in the movies.

Iowa has plenty of successful attractions throughout the state. There's no reason it can't have many more -- including those promoting the environment. But only if we remember the lesson of the Laser Center. Only if we build solid financial foundations under our dreams. Only if we give more attention to revenue streams and operating costs than to construction costs.

Iowa needs bold vision. Undiscriminating "naysaying" to any and all projects doesn't help. But selective rational analysis does. And when "the emperor has no clothes" we ignore the difference at our peril.