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Iowa: Creating a Rainforest "From the Ground Up"

  • Subject: [cg] Iowa: Creating a Rainforest "From the Ground Up"
  • From: Adam36055@aol.com
  • Date: Mon, 22 Mar 2004 10:06:01 EST


I thought this might  those of us in the American Commuity Gardening association who "build community from the ground up" in our community gardens across the US & Canada. This project looks interesting (and expensive! - 46 million plus). Amazing, a whole rainforest ecosystem under a bubble in the Midwest!

However, for that amount of dough, I'd love to compare it with the work done by the  Des Moines, IA Botanical Center, Des Moines Botanical Center , in building communities from the ground up in that city's community gardens, I suspect, for a lot less money and value added to that community.

Best wishes,
Adam Honigman
Clinton Community Garden

Monday, March 22, 2004

Creating a rain forest from the ground up

Design aim to capture the wild

Five-foot leaves rustle as monkeys swing from tree to tree over the quiet waters 80 feet below. Butterflies and bees flit from blossom to blossom, devouring the nectar and distributing pollen in return. A sloth drapes itself across a branch, oblivious to the snow and single-digit temperatures outside of this tropical microcosm.

That is what project leaders envision and hope to have by 2008: three
layers of high-tech material separating an Amazonian rain forest from the American Midwest.

Will it be an entirely natural system? No. But designers and developers of the indoor rain forest officially known as the Iowa Environmental/Education Project hope it will be hard to tell the difference.

Despite unresolved questions about plant propagation and cultivation, the role of animals and financing, project proponents see a budding opportunity for economic and educational growth. Project chief administrator David Oman said the design team will zero in on the unknowns and unresolved issues in the next few months as it looks to formalize plans and work toward a fall groundbreaking.

Town meeting
The Press-Citizen is hosting a public forum about the Iowa Environmental/Education Project.
â When: 7 to 8:30 p.m. today.
â Where: Northwest Junior High School auditorium, Coralville.
â Panelists: David Oman, IEEP chief administrator; former Gov. Robert D. Ray, IEEP chairman; Peter Sollogub, Sergio Modigliani, IEEP design team; Chris Rohret, Iowa City School District; Robert Yager, University of Iowa; and Kelly Hayworth, Coralville city administrator.
â Format: First half features presentations from panelists; during second half, audience may ask the panelists questions.

Dan Perlman, a biology professor in the Brandeis University environmental studies program in Waltham, Mass., said he is a huge fan of getting people into nature - and if that doesn't work, bring nature to them. But like many others, Perlman is anxious about the project.

"Potentially, this could be a wonderful thing," he said. "There is a great deal of potential."

Still, "I'm worried about the feasibility of the scientific side," he said.

Horticulturalist Robert Halpern sees endless educational and ecological possibilities inside the Iowa Environmental/Education Project.

"It is my hope," he said, "people will leave this space all excited about this resource that is nature."

Big changes ahead

The landscape southeast of Interstate 80, just off exit 242, is slated to undergo drastic changes in the next four years. Instead of steel-sided warehouses, rusty waste bins and 18-wheelers, an 18-story transparent dome stretching three football fields in length will dominate the parcel.

"I don't know about easy," Halpern said about creating the rain forest and establishing the plants and animals indoors, "but it's absolutely doable."

The giant dome will house three 6,000-square-foot educational galleries, possible research facilities and trails over, around and through acres of Amazonian flora.

Halpern, of New York-based Zoo Horticulture Consulting & Design, is working with architectural firm Chermayeff, Sollogub & Poole, Inc., of Boston, on the development along the Iowa River. Experts in finance, engineering, plant nurseries and botanical gardens are other players on the team charged with bringing a 4.5-acre tropical system to life in what used to be a sprawling industrial park.

Halpern, who formerly worked with the Cincinnati and Bronx zoos, said trees and plants likely will come from botanical gardens and Florida nurseries and planted in nutritionally balanced manufactured soil. Southern Florida is where officials with Omaha's Lied Jungle found the bulk of their tropical trees and plants in the early 1990s. They dealt with commercial growers but also drove the area themselves, scouring the rural roadsides and buying items out of residents' yards.

"We started out with very large trees," said Lee Simmons, director of the Henry Doorly Zoo in which the 1.5-acre Lied Jungle enclosed rain forest is located. "We managed to do it with pure serendipity and blind luck, and we managed to do it before the big hurricane (Andrew in 1992) came through.

"Since then, the big trees and such that we managed to get for a fairly reasonable rate simply don't exist anymore in southern Florida," he said. "Since then, I know some of the people who have done smaller things have really struggled to get trees of any size."

Project leaders said they expect some trees to grow from 45 feet when they arrive to more than 100 feet years down the road.

At the Lied Jungle, Simmons said another challenge is working out the evolution of which plants actually thrive and which do not. Trees soaring 60 or 70 feet create the much-desired canopy, but it raises another concern: maintaining the shaded plant life on the forest floor.

Halpern likened the ecosystem care to "gardening." He said some of the new life may come from natural plant propagation, but keeping things green and lush likely will require human help.

Maintaining the greenhouse

Oman said plans will continue to evolve, even after it's open, to keep things fresh and exciting. However, current plans still need fine-tuning.

Oman often compares the project proposed for Coralville to The Eden Project in Cornwall, England, which opened in March 2001. More than a year before construction began on Eden, teams already were selecting, nurturing and producing plants for the multiple biomes in Eden. The nursery, which includes quarantine houses for all plants brought from outside the European Union, covers more than 12 acres on a site five miles from the tourist attraction.

In U.S. currency, it cost almost $46.7 million for the greenhouse and nursery facilities. Halpern said he would like to see the Iowa project have similar space, but no greenhouse or nursery facilities are included in the $180 Iowa Environmental/Education Project budget. However, Oman said there are discussions about a greenhouse staging area to start plants that employees can transplant in the indoor rain forest, and it is on the radar for future funding.

"We want to do serious inventory of what (greenhouses) exists in the area first," he said.

Oman said project leaders are learning about the greenhouses at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids. Kirkwood president Norm Nielsen said there is a meeting later this week to discuss what role Kirkwood would have with the project, possibly including the horticulture curriculum.

Kirkwood's greenhouse technician, Stacie Neuzil, and the Dean of the Department of Agricultural Science, Jerry Bolton, agreed that without expanding current facilities, using the four greenhouses at the community college about 22 miles from Coralville is an unlikely option.

"Our greenhouses are pretty limited right now with what we have," Bolton said. "It would be pretty hard for us to get involved (with current facilities)."

Bolton added that there was a small window of opportunity from May through November because the greenhouse used to grow the greens and flowers planted throughout campus are open during that half of the year.

Animals present?

Although monkeys, birds and other animals bring in visitors, they also add to costs. Oman said the question to what extent animals are present "will be a judgment call we have to make within the next several months" because it will affect the interior design and the budget.

"We have some animals there," he said, explaining there certainly will be birds and fish. The question will be how many mammals. "I don't think it's been a question of how many or zero. There will be some, but it's still under discussion."

Oman has heard the jokes and concerns about escaping animals, but he said the facility's layout will conform to The American Zoo and Aquarium Association guidelines and that staff will adhere to AZA rules for all animal care and containment.

If animals are included, principal architect Peter Sollogub said the animals will appear to roam free. He wants to make the containment invisible, using "natural" barriers and hiding blockades under water or behind vegetation.

"When we're at our best," Sollogub said, "(the animals) are not in cages or bars."

Like nature, a project of this magnitude involves complex relationships among plants, animals, light, air, water and soil.

"We want this to be as much like a functioning ecosystem as possible," Halpern said. "We have to create an experience that will be miraculous in nature. Nobody has ever done anything on this scale where you can really go exploring. When you can really see it, it's spectacular."

Press-Citizen reporter Brian Sharp contributed to this story.

Reach Rebecca Schultze at 339-7360 or at rschultze@press-citizen.com.


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