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Should public parks allow private profits?

Yellowstone National Park, the world's largest group of geothermal features, contains startling ecosystyems. In 1967 Thomas Brock, of the University of Wisconsin, studying the superheated water of Mushroom Pool, found a bacterium there, Thermus aquaticus, which is probably one of the most ancient forms of life on Earth.

Although Yellowstone is unusual, our National Parks comprise a national treasury of biodiversity, conserving our wild heritage in every terrestrial ecoregion of the U.S. For over a hundred years the National Park Service has permitted scientific study of specimens from the parks. Some call this "bioprospecting"; however the marketable commodity here is not specimens, but research results, which can result in commercial applications.

Thermus aquaticus makes an enzyme which now enables DNA fingerprinting — technology patented by a private corporation and resulting in multi-million dollar earnings. The National Park Service has received no compensation for such results — until in 1997 they struck a deal with a company called Diversa, who specialize in hot-springs research, to "share benefits."

NPS benefits included both money and research assistance. (Long-term environmental stewardship requires the best scientific information.) However the details were not made public. Three environmental groups took the NPS to court.

On March 24, 1999, Judge Royce Lamberth, of U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, suspended the deal and called for an environmental assessment of benefits-sharing. The question is, how do you assess environmental impact of financial and research events?

NPS solicited public commentary to determine the scope of environmental issues and objectives to be addressed. They decided that the environment affected falls into four categories. Three within the parks and the NPS: Natural Resource Management; Visitor Experience and Enjoyment; and Administrative Operations. And fourth, the Research Community as a whole, extending beyond NPS operations but affected by them.

The resulting Draft Environmental Impact Statement compares five alternative plans, including no action (no benefits-sharing) and prohibiting research specimen collection for any commercially related research. The plan they prefer so far proposes benefits-sharing
with optional disclosure of all terms and conditions (reserving proprietary information).

Will commercial value of a research project bias granting of research permits? Stringent procedures address this, especially processing permits separately from — and before — considering possible benefits-sharing.

Should the NPS profit from privatization of the results of research on public property? NPS says that concern is outside the scope of the DEIS.

Comments on the DEIS may be submitted to the NPS by December 15.

© Copyright 2006 Catherine Holmes Clark

Published in the six Nashoba Publications papers on Friday, 1 December 2006

The Green Hands story published next (Enclosing the Commons) discusses this subject further

For more information
  • The Yellowstone Case - on the site of the Emonds Institute, one of the three organizations that took the NPS to court.
  • The final (October 2009) Benefits-Sharing Draft Environmental Impact Statement, on the NPS site. For their comments responding to the concerns I expressed above, see Chapter 5, section 5.3.9.2, or sarch the document for "privatization." Basically, they fall back on the already-in-place public policies on intellectual property rights, which frame those rights as commodities to be bought and sold.
  • The comment I submitted.
  • Enclosing the Commons, more of my thoughts on this issue.