Calling Ted Townsend a visionary is a little like saying Jane Goodall got on well with the chimpanzees she studied in Tanzania. But if Townsend's farsighted thinking pays off, as those surrounding him at his Great Ape Trust of Iowa and Earthpark projects expect it will, Central Iowa could join the Jane Goodall Institute or the Eden Project in England as places where vexing environmental and ecological issues are addressed.

At Great Ape Trust, Townsend has brought together some of the world's pre-eminent experts on primate learning, intelligence and language and built a facility that is unique in the world. Two species of great apes, bonobos and orangutans, currently reside at The Trust, and gorillas and chimpanzees are expected to join them at an unspecified time in the future.

"Understanding how any mind acquires knowledge is going to turn our understanding upside down," Townsend said of the research being accomplished at The Trust, where the first great apes arrived in 2004. "An opportunity like that doesn't come along very often."

Groundbreaking is expected this year on Townsend's other major project, Earthpark, a national environmental center to be built near Pella on the shore of Lake Red Rock, Iowa's largest lake, and seeded financially by Townsend with more than $10 million. When complete, perhaps as soon as 2010, Earthpark will include a 600,000-gallon freshwater aquarium, exterior prairie and wetland exhibits, an indoor rain forest biome, and galleries on global environmental science issues. Featuring a sustainable design and materials and using alternative and renewable energy systems, Earthpark's mission is to "inspire generations to learn about the natural world" through an immersive experience its founder believes will stimulate a deeper interest in science and education.

Earthpark, like the Eden Project in Cornwall, England, carries huge tourism potential for Iowa, according to its backers, but there's more to the story than that, Townsend said. Through the two projects, Iowa can take a lead role in addressing two of the three major crises he believes must be confronted in the first half of the 21st century: the state of the environment and education and learning. The third is the threat of religion-driven terrorism, "a monster" Townsend admits "there's not a lot we can do about locally."

Townsend has committed more than $31 million of his personal fortune, built at the formerly family-owned Townsend Engineering Co., which he sold last year to the Dutch company Stork Food Systems, to seed his visions for the state - about $21 million at the Great Ape Trust and $10 million at Earthpark.

"I think there are a great many folks in Des Moines and Iowa who underestimate the significant investment Ted Townsend has made in these projects," said Al Setka, director of communications for The Trust. "His generosity and vision will be felt for generations to come."

One way Townsend's influence will be felt is through formal and informal relationships with nine colleges and universities, most in Iowa, but also with the Great Ape Research Institute in Okayama, Japan, and the Stone Age Institute in Indiana.

"Ted is a very big thinker who creates big ideas and pours his enthusiasm into selling them," said Iowa State University President Gregory L. Geoffroy. "Every organization and community needs people like Ted, who think outside the box, who will challenge others to think much bigger and broader than they otherwise would."

Iowa State stands to gain from the $1.5 million Townsend has set aside for education throughout Iowa and the world. The investment carries the name of Duane M. Rumbaugh, lead scientist emeritus at The Trust and one of the world leaders in the field of primate learning, intelligence and language. The other institutions that have developed formal or informal relationships with The Trust are Drake University, University of Iowa, Central College, Buena Vista College, Grinnell College and Simpson College. Memoranda of understanding have been reached with some others, including the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., established in the late 20th century to advance human knowledge for the betterment of mankind, and Carthage University in Tunisia.

Geoffroy said the alliance with a world-class research center such as Great Ape Trust has obvious benefits for Iowa State faculty and staff, but also is a "two-way win-win interaction" because The Trust's scientists also profit from a strong association with the university's scientists and their expertise in primatology and related fields.

Great Ape Trust, Geoffroy said, "has some of the very best scientists, facilities and research that could be found anywhere."

"It provides the opportunity for our faculty working in a number of areas on campus to interact with the outstanding scientists at Great Ape Trust and in doing so enhance the impact and excellence of their own work," he said. "It provides our students, both undergraduate and graduate, with exceptional educational opportunities, and it will help us recruit the very best faculty and students who want to work in related areas."

"It's all about science and learning," Townsend said, "and Iowa State, from the inside out, has embraced this opportunity."

Geoffroy said Townsend challenges others to think differently. "People like Ted are few and far between, and we always need to treasure them because it is through people like Ted that organizations and communities make the biggest leaps and advances."