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Running Into an Environmental Roadblock, Honda Scraps Plan for School in Colorado

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By Jonathan Weisman

When executives of the American Honda Corporation caught their first glimpse of the waters of Gold Lake in Boulder County, Colo., eight months ago, they could not believe their good fortune.

The lake makes up one-third of a privately owned, 90-acre site, surrounded by national-forest land and perched on a mountain ridge overlooking a vast, Rocky Mountain panorama. Such a majestic setting, the corporate officials agreed, would be perfect be for the experimental, public boarding school for at-risk students Honda envisioned building in cooperation with local educators.

But late last month, in the wake of fierce opposition from environmentalists and restrictions imposed by the county commission, Honda said it was abandoning its plans for the site and would take its $25-million project elsewhere.

"Everybody that goes to that site just falls in love with it," Jeffrey Winston, a Boulder consultant hired by the newly formed American Honda Education Corporation to develop the property, said last week. "Everybody who has seen it has his own private dream about what he wants to do with it."

"Ours seems to have lost," he said.

But, following the corporation's setback at Gold Lake, invitations from districts throughout the country have flooded Honda's education office, company officials said. The proposed experimental school, wherever it is finally built, may be one of the largest corporate efforts in American education to date and could provide a model that Honda would help replicate in other communities.

And Honda officials hope the project will enhance their company's image as a corporate good citizen that, despite its Japanese parentage, cares about the quality of American education. The effort comes amid a surge in Japanese corporate philanthropy targeted at schools in the United States. (See Education Week, Jan. 30, 1991.)

Partnership With University

In partnership with the University of Colorado at Boulder, Honda had planned to build a tuition-free boarding school on the Gold Lake site for 96 at-risk students from three nearby school districts--Boulder Valley, St. Vrain, and Adams 12. Counting staff members and visiting educators, the school would have accommodated 150 residents.

The rugged, outdoor environment at the lake would have been used for Outward Bound-type programs and new experiential-learning approaches, to be developed by the university's school of education, according to Thomas Dean, vice president of the Honda Education Corporation. The nonprofit corporation funded by the automobile manufacturer has the primary mission of developing such experimental schools.

The university, with funding from Honda, would have set up a teacher-training and curriculum-development center for education students from the university and teachers from around the country.

And the school's proposed location, the organizers said, was chosen to foster a sense of awe in its students and possibly inspire a new generation of American environmentalists. To run the school, Honda hired Robert Burkhardt, a former executive director of the San Francisco Conservation Corps.

"This was not going to be Camp Run Amok," Mr. Winston, the Boulder consultant, said.

"Environmental education was going to be integral in [the students'] educational experience," he said. "They weren't going to be running through the forest with machetes and boom boxes, scaring the elk."

The school was to have opened in fall 1992. Honda expected to invest an estimated $25 million in the project by the end of the decade.

Environmental Harm Seen

But despite the project's environmental focus, many of Boulder County's environmentally conscious citizens charged that the Gold Lake project would wreak havoc on the area's ecosystem. Opponents maintained that development of the school site would lead to contamination of water supplies, disturbance of elk herds, the paving over of American Indian holy sites, and4degradation of the surrounding Roosevelt National Forest.

The concerns convinced the Boulder County Commission late last month to require that the project be pared down to 48 students, with a maximum of 65 full-time residents--limitations that Honda deemed unacceptable.

Honda officials contended that the student body would be too small to create a replicable education experiment, and that land-use limitations would prohibit a full-scale teacher-training center.

So, after spending six months and $150,000 developing its Gold Lake plans, Honda has elected to go elsewhere.

"It may be a victory," acknowledged Steve Montgomery, co-director of the Indian Peaks chapter of the Colorado Archaeological Society, one of the groups opposed to the Gold Lake plan, "but it's a sad victory if it means Honda will have to leave Boulder County."

Honda officials stressed that they would look at other sites in or near Boulder County and said there were no hard feelings about the Gold Lake dispute.

But others said the pitched battle that was fought last month in the local news media and the county commission had left a residue of ill will that would be hard to overcome.

The school "would have been an exciting thing to have here, and it will be tragic if they move," said Richard J. Kraft, a professor of education and director of experiential education at the University of Colorado. "But given the treatment they received from our commissioners and the community, I wouldn't blame them if they packed up and moved elsewhere."

'People's Republic of Boulder'?

Mr. Kraft charged that the opponents of the Gold Lake plan had "shot the community in the foot," sacrificing the good of Boulder's children for exaggerated environmental concerns.

In a recent column for the Boulder Daily Camera, Mr. Kraft wrote: "The innuendos, false information, rumor, and environmental nonsense spouted by critics of the American Honda Education Corporation's offer ... only reinforces the conservatives who claim that we in the People's Republic of Boulder live in a fairyland, without much connection to the real world of suffering people, alienated youth, homelessness, [and] abused and hungry children."

"To say that I am ashamed of my fellow environmentalists is a vast understatement," he wrote.

Environmentalists countered by charging Honda with intransigence and insensitivity, and said project supporters had tried to railroad approval of the Gold Lake plan through the county commission by ignoring genuine concerns and tarring opponents as anti-education.

"That's the kind of inflammatory crap they're throwing out that's giving Honda a bad name around here," said Carla Johnson, a Boulder hydrologist. "They said a vote against [this project] is a vote against education, and a vote against education is a vote against mother and apple pie."

Ms. Johnson said people were stopping her last week in the grocery store and accusing her of opposing the well-being of the children of Boulder.

While most of the arguments revolved around solid environmental issues, proponents and opponents alike admitted that at times the debate had gotten out of hand.

One opponent, for example, charged that the car company's claim of environmental awareness was not to be trusted because his Honda automobile did not get the gas mileage the dealer had promised him.

Talk around Boulder also suggested that the plan entailed selling out the national forest to foreign buyers, Honda officials said. A sign posted near Gold Lake drew a red slash through the word "Honda" and read, "No Urbanization in National Forest."

Supporters of the project pointed out that the property in question was not in the national forest and had been developed some 70 years ago, first as a working ranch, then as a "dude ranch," and now as a conference center.

Winners or Losers?

Meanwhile, the environmentalists are not apologizing for their stance, but they are asking Honda not to move the project from the Boulder area.

Mr. Burkhardt, the official hired to run the school, said opponents had presented him with eight alternative sites, all in Boulder County. But, he added, none of them was suitable.

"It would benefit everyone for them to put their anger aside, look to the future, and stop muddling in the past," Ms. Johnson said. "But nobody's going to beat their heads if [the Honda project] move[s] to another county."

The chances seem good that the project will move to another location in Colorado, Mr. Dean of the Honda Education Corporation said.

The University of Colorado has assured Honda that the project is worth a lengthy commute, and university students may get one. Prime candidates for a new site are said to be Greely and Estes Park, north of Boulder, and Jefferson County to the south.

Other sites under consideration are even farther from Gold Lake.

In any case, the project has probably been set back by five months or more, according to Mr. Winston, the development consultant.

"The kids are the big losers," Mr. Burkhardt said. "The more this gets delayed, the more time is lost in joining other people that are responding to the critical issues of public education."

"And of course," he added, "they might not know it, but the community of Boulder County may have lost too."

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