Return to Nicholas Johnson's Main Web Site

Return to Nicholas Johnson's Coralville Rain Forest Web Site


Congress Reins in Rain Forest
Legislation Would Shut Off Federal Funds,
Impose Deadline for Raising $50 Million

Zack Kucharski

The Gazette

November 10, 2005

[Note: This material is copyright by The Gazette, 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 Gazette.]

    CORALVILLE — Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, says the group proposing an indoor rain forest in Coralville must raise $50 million before spending any more federal money.

    The House passed legislation Wednesday giving the group wanting to build the $180 million rain forest until December 2007 to raise the money or lose the rest of the $50 million appropriation. The Senate was to vote as early as today.

    ‘‘The project will never become a reality if the majority of the funding isn’t raised from private benefactors and other sources. Until the project can demonstrate its ability to raise that money, I can’t let federal tax dollars be frittered away,’’ Grassley said in a written statement.

    Federal disclosure reports filed with the U.S. Department of Energy show the project has spent about $2.9 million of federal money, but the reports do not detail how the money was spent.

    Grassley said he continues to support the rain forest, known as The Environmental Project, and said his legislation is aimed at generating additional resources for the project, which would be built

just south of Interstate 80 and east of First Avenue in Coralville. The legislation restricts land donations from counting as part of private funding.

    Grassley, who has been criticized for securing the federal money for the project that some say is just pork barrel, sought the spending restrictions because of the project leaders’ inability to raise private money.

    ‘‘I want to make sure that $50 million isn’t spent unless there is a project built with it,’’ Grassley told KCRG-TV9 in an on-air interview.

    David Oman, executive director of the project, said the restrictions will not affect the planning and design for the rain forest, which includes a 1.2 million-gallon aquarium and education center.

    ‘‘The time frame on matching the federal grant is more than reasonable. It should accelerate some of our funding discussions and bring some to a conclusion,’’ Oman said.

    Oman would not address speculation that project leaders are trying to find a new home for the $180 million rain forest, saying only the current directive was ‘‘to resolve matters with Coralville.’’

    Despite talks for the past two months, project and city officials have failed to negotiate the city’s transfer of a 22-acre site for the rain forest. The city estimates the land is worth $40 million.

    ‘‘I expect our board will have multiple discussions about this topic in the days and weeks ahead,’’ Oman said.

    The board meets in Amana today.

    The Senate measure, like the original appropriation, requires the rain forest be built in Iowa but does not require it be built in Coralville, said Beth Levine, Grassley’s assistant press secretary.

    Project officials have been working with Coralville since 2001 but have been slowed by the inability to raise the remaining $90 million needed for construction and because of strains in the relationship between them and the majority of City Council members, some of whom want new leadership at The Environmental Project.

    Coralville City Administrator Kelly Hayworth declined comment on Grassley’s legislation, writing in an e-mail ‘‘we do not know any details of this.’’

    Coralville City Council member John Lundell, a swing vote who has recently been critical of the project, considered the deadline a positive development because the city needs to move ahead with its massive development in the area that includes the proposed rain forest.

    ‘‘This is a strong message by Senator Grassley that he wants this project expedited as quickly as possible and come to some type of conclusion,’’ Lundell said. ‘‘I think that exactly reflects the feelings of myself, and the majority of the council. We just can’t continue to wait forever for them to continue to raise the money.’’