Thursday, August 03, 2006

Rain Forest "Remaining Issues" Still Remain

Over two years ago I wrote an Internet-published-only piece: Nicholas Johnson, "The Coralville Rain Forest: A Brief Overview of Remaining Issues," April 9, 2004, rev. ed. April 24, 2004.

I had totally forgotten about it until this morning when it came to my attention that it has been receiving a number of hits, so I clicked on it to see what it was. Those of you who are regular readers of this blog (a) know that it is no longer "The Coralville Rain Forest," and (b) will not be stunned to discover this analysis is not really a "Brief Overview."

But it is even more relevant today than when it was written 28 months ago, both because (a) it remains one of the most thorough listings of the categories of issues that are still with us today, and (b) the fact that they are still with us, and the questions raised in this document have still not been answered, should itself be a matter of concern to those considering the project in 2006.

I should note that I have never considered myself an "opponent" of the rain forest -- in part because, to this day, there is so little known about it in detail that it is virtually impossible to be either a responsible advocate or opponent. As I say on my rain forest Web site,, I am "neither a booster nor a basher." What I am opposed to are promoters and public officials playing the role of cheerleader for projects funded with public money that cannot produce the kind of business plan any first-year business student would be expected to be able to write. And that, alas, has been the nature of this project, from its beginning 10 years ago up to the present day.

The analysis begins: "The purposes of this document are (a) to make the point that, six months before construction is to begin, there remains a rather substantial range of unresolved categories of questions regarding the proposed Coralville rain forest, and (b) to provide in one place a brief overview and sampling of those issues."

Note the use of the word "categories." In other words, the document does not attempt, nor make the representation that it contains, a list of all the unanswered questions from the time Ted Townsend first thought of the idea of an indoor rain forest for Iowa. It is more like a table of contents, listing "chapters" of concerns, with only enough examples to make clear the scope of the category in question.

They include:
  • why the public should care; that these are not merely issues for the project's promoters and funders
  • the failure to raise construction funds
  • "the laugh test"
  • the hazards of reducing the size of the structure
  • the failure to make public a budget for the future, or an accounting of expenditures from the past
  • the role of campaign contributions and possible conflicts of interest
  • the failure to test, or provide support, for attendance projections
  • if, as promised, it's an "education" facility, where are the details; why is a "rain forest" necessary to the purported mission; what resulted from the $500,000 Department of Education grant?
  • lack of focus and mutually inconsistent multiple purposes (e.g., tourism, research, education)
  • environmental impact (e.g., electric power to heat and cool; lsignificant water depletion)
  • what's public's tab if low attendance results in financial failure (e.g., perpetual subsidy)
  • governance; lack of public participation and transparency
  • cost overruns
  • lack of construction PERT chart/project planning just prior to ground breaking
  • failure to resolve "details" (e.g., plastic tree trunks ("fake forest") or 50-foot trees inside 200-foot dome?)
  • lack of detail regarding job classifications, numbers of employees, pay levels, role of unions, external economic impact
  • incongruity of "research facility" inside tourist attraction (and why would rain forest research scientists perfer an indoor rain forest in Iowa to a real one in Central or South America?)
The document, along with 11 footnotes, explore these categories further.

Anyone who's curious about the rain forest will find the document interesting reading. Anyone with significant social responsibility for the project -- such as city council members and journalists -- may find ithis listing of "Remaining Issues" of 2004, that still remain over two years later, to be "must reading."

Again, the direct link is

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