Washington, DC . - In its first park policy initiative, the Bush Administration is proposing to allow private companies to enter into profit-sharing arrangements with national parks. Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) today filed a challenge against the plan under the National Environmental Policy Act, citing its broad scope, and the need for the National Park Service (NPS) to evaluate each research profit-sharing agreement separately.
Under the Bush plan, any of the nearly 400 NPS units could enter into a "benefits-sharing agreement" with a corporate research firm. Pursuant to such an agreement, the company would provide the park with "equitable" monetary or in-kind compensation for its use of park resources. Currently, NPS regulations permit reputable scientific or educational institutions to conduct research as long as they do not impair the park's natural or cultural resources, or visitor enjoyment.
The Bush plan arises out of a proposal by a "bio-prospecting" company named Diversa to extract microorganisms living in Yellowstone National Park's geysers for commercial use. PEER contends that agency-wide promotion of commercial research could also be used to facilitate mineral exploration, such as proposals for drilling in Alaska's Katmai National Park, seismic exploration for oil in national parks or taking rare plants or animals from parks.
"This plan opens our national parks to commercialization, placing our national treasures at risk," stated PEER Board Member Frank Buono, a retired Park Service manager. "Worse, park service managers will feel financial pressure to enter into these agreements and overlook the real impacts to the resource."
NPS is seeking to conduct a single assessment of the "environmental impacts of implementing benefits-sharing agreements" for the collection of research specimens from the entire 84 million acre national park system. PEER is protesting that such a sweeping environmental assessment is an impossible undertaking since NPS has no idea of the number, nature and quantity of resources companies may collect under possible agreements.
George W. Bush is on record favoring a greater corporate role in parks. As Governor of Texas, Bush sent out requests for proposals for developers to build 24 privately-managed resorts at state parks, such as Davis Mountains and Pedernales Falls. Under that plan, developers were asked to design "nature lodgings" featuring hotels with rooms renting for $200 a night, conference centers, restaurants and shops. Profits would have been shared between each park and the companies. After PEER released the proposed contracts, the plan was put on hold.
The latest plan was published in the Federal Register in June and the comment period, originally set to close August 10, has been extended to August 27. The Park Service expects to make a final decision this winter.