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Whither the Coralville Rain Forest?

Kay Thistlethwaite
Writers' Group

Iowa City Press-Citizen, Opinion
May 1, 2004
p. 13A



"Rain forest funds tied to gambling" was the headline of Feb 20's top front page story. The article was about a debate in the state legislature on the gambling bill, but for me, that headline said it all. The rain forest is a huge gamble, a bet I wouldn't make.

When I first heard about the plans to build a rain forest in Coralville, I laughed. That's a common reaction, I've noticed, usually followed by, "A what?" and "In Iowa?" I couldn't believe that anyone would want to build an artificial rain forest anywhere, let alone in the middle of the heartland, right next to an interstate.

I'm excited about all the construction going on in the Iowa City area, but I cling to the word "proposed" that often prefaces the title "Iowa Environmental/Education Project" because I hope this project is never built. I thought I might be opposed to it because I didn't understand it, so I read several articles, talked with people, and went to the March town meeting sponsored by this newspaper. None of that worked. Thinking about the project continues to give me "Where are their heads?" moments.

The concept of an artificial rain forest in Iowa is ludicrous. Plans for the educational components of the project seem admirable, but filling in the wetlands and flood plain to build it on and then calling it environmentally friendly is quite a compromise! What does that teach? Why would scientists do research in a demonstration rain forest when they can go to primary sources - real rain forests?

Follow the money

If the Iowa Environmental/Education Project is such a great idea, the only one of its kind in the world, why isn't money rolling in from the private sector? The project already has been successful in one way: Sen. Charles Grassley's tenacious efforts to push through appropriations for the project were an illuminating example of how government works. I'd never before seen my tax dollars at work so clearly, or thought so much about the meaning of "pork." Which restaurant will be first to serve a Coralville Rain Forest Pork Chop?

The audience at the town meeting was quiet, and I think it was because the obviously intelligent project staff members were so caught up in their areas of expertise that they almost talked their parts of the project to death. This thing is a hard sell. They need some pizzazz. Only the architect looked excited, and considering how a lot of people have described his building ("It looks like a tomato worm ... a caterpillar ... a beached whale ... a rolled roast tied with butcher string" "Did they say it would be covered with aluminum foil?"), it's a good thing he has an upbeat personality.

Someone asked what the projected attendance figures were based on, and the answer was that they hired a reputable firm. I'm suspicious of that kind of vagueness. The estimates can be only educated guesses, supposition. I hope they've averaged in a total attendance of about six for a January day during a typical Iowa ice storm.

What are the odds of accurately estimating construction and operating costs? The recent Iowa City school construction costs came in far over budget. The price of fuel continues to escalate.

Maybe this will help

During the town meeting, I thought of "The Music Man." We got trouble, right here in Iowa, a lot more serious than River City's kids playing pool after school. I could hear Professor Harold Hill shouting, "Coralville's gotta' have a rain forest!"

I'm not suggesting Iowa Environmental/Education Project is a scam, but there is something about its addressing our problems of declining population, loss of jobs and young people, a depressed economy, lack of tourists, and other ills that resembles the something-for-everybody claims made for River City's boys band.

This is a difficult, unsettled time in our country. We're enmeshed in the effects of Sept. 11, 2001, the war in Iraq, the depressed economy and the upcoming presidential election. Some people fear that if the Iowa Environmental/Education Project does open, it will eventually fail, and Coralvillians and the rest of us Iowans will never live down the embarrassment of the dead white elephant by the side of the road. A greater fear is that we taxpayers will be footing the bill for it whether it succeeds or not. The Iowa Environmental/Education Project is a luxury we can't afford.
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Kay Thistlethwaite is an Iowa City resident. She is a member of the Writers' Group, a corps of local residents who write regular opinion columns for the Press-Citizen.