Rain forest organizers mist over issues at town meeting

Norman Luxenburg
Guest Opinion

Iowa City Press-Citizen
March 31, 2004

At the March 22 Press-Citizen-sponsored town meeting on the Iowa Environmental/ Education Project, there were several important questions and problems that the speakers' panel, consisting only of those enthusiastically in favor of the project, did not clear up.

The first of these concerns the highly speculative and dubious estimates of large numbers of paying visitors to the rain forest on which the running costs of the project will be dependent. David Oman, the project director, assured the audience that the estimates of an annual paid attendance of 1.5 million visitors at $15 for adults and $9 for children were from solid, respectable agencies and that the project could meet expenses even at a most conservative low estimate of 1.3 million. Will Oman and his assistants state publicly and for the record that they will not come to the taxpayers for additional funds if and when those attendance numbers do not materialize? We should not forget the vastly inflated attendance estimates that enabled such other disastrous projects as the Denver Aquarium, the Millennium Dome and the Tampa Aquarium to get the green light.

Grant estimate all wet

At the town meeting, we were told about the great research and learning importance of this project. One speaker in reply to a question even stated that $5 million annually in research grants would be a low estimate of what they could expect. All the University of Iowa biologists with whom I was able to speak after the town meeting laughed at that assumption, treating it as something absolutely preposterous and many, many times larger than anything realistic. Furthermore, not one of them was favorable to the project. Even worse for genuine scholars, this would be primarily a tourist attraction, not a research center.

Because the matter of "expert" forecasts came up and because the panel spoke about the great environmental work that would be accomplished by this project, the great researchers who would use it, and how, for example, they would recycle the water used, as though that were something new, it would be advisable to gain perspective by having a look at another major environmental project of this past decade. Back in 1991, some 30 miles from Tucson, the giant Biosphere center, intended to be a miniature Earth that not only recycled water but all organic substances, opened. Years of research and preparation, along with many millions of private money, had gone into this project - a project that had involved leading engineers and scholars from all over the world.

All types of problems quickly arose. In 1994, Columbia University came to the rescue after geochemist Walter Broecker suggested using the Biosphere to "alert our fellow earthlings" to the biological and biochemical consequences of global warming. Columbia hired a noted Australian botanist to lure well-known faculty to Arizona for attracting students and winning federal research dollars.

Tucson vs. Iowa City

An Nov. 17, 1995, article in Science stated that the new directors hoped to "exploit Biosphere's size, engineering sophistication, and the diversity of plants it houses to study how different ecosystems respond to changes in climate and carbon dioxide levels ..." Despite widespread advertising and active recruiting efforts, however, no big-name researchers signed. The number of students fell by half. In September 2003, Columbia University decided to withdraw from the $15-million-a-year Biosphere, and, except for maintenance, almost all activity ceased there.

If the already-functioning Biosphere could not attract top-flight biologists to Tucson, one wonders how such people would be attracted to an uncertain Iowa rain forest, which even under the best scenario would not be ready for four years. In addition, its continued existence would be dependent on a most questionable annual flow of a million and a half paying visitors.

The Iowa project director is quoted in the March 15 issues as stating that Iowa City-Coralville is already a tourist destination, supporting this statement by using a local visitors bureau's figure of an estimated $199 million spent by visitors in the metro area. How many of these visitors can rightly be called tourists is very questionable. While this is a very nice area, it seems most likely that many visitors from the surrounding areas come to Iowa City-Coralville to shop while others come because of the university, sports events, medical facilities and other amenities. It seems very doubtful that most visitors come to Iowa City-Coralville could be classified as tourists.

Reach Norman Luxenburg, a professor of Russian at the University of Iowa, at nluxenburg@mchsi.com.