Washington, DC — The National Park Service (NPS) has unveiled its plans to allow commercial bioprospecting in the National Parks. Under the plan, the Park Service will allow private corporations to extract and make money from organisms taken from the national parks, including millions of acres of wilderness areas.
The term that NPS uses to describe the new commercial arrangements is “Benefits-Sharing.” The document NPS put out for comment, technically called a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS), follows a seven-year-old court order obtained by public interest advocates opposed to the “commercialization of the commons” forcing NPS to do an environmental review leading to the DEIS first published on September 22, 2006.
“This is, sadly, another step along the path of turning our national treasures into corporate booty,” said Beth Burrows, Director of the Edmonds Institute (EI), one of the plaintiffs in the original lawsuit over this matter. “We support scientific research in the parks, but we are against commercializing the parks and their wildlife.”
“Legally the National Park System is not set up to be a commercial resource base, but the Administration seems dead set in favor of opening up the parks to commercial extraction,” stated Joseph Mendelson, legal director of the International Center for Technology Assessment (ICTA), another of the plaintiffs in the original lawsuit over bioprospecting in the Parks.
“There are commercial activities in the Parks,” explained Mike Bader, former Park employee acting as a consultant for EI. “There are hotels and guides and gas stations, but all those are in direct support of visitor services, a primary purpose of the Parks.”
“The public needs to remember that Yellowstone and the other national parks were designated as parks to protect them from exploitation,” added Michael Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies. “We don’t want to turn back the clock by exploiting them now.”
Frank Buono, former NPS employee now on the board of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), warns, “The NPS must be very careful that private commerce does not distort the preservation mission, or the ethics of its public servants. Gaining some funds from possibly secret deals is not worth either.”
The controversy over bioprospecting in the parks first came to light in 1997 as Yellowstone National Park was making plans to commemorate its 125th anniversary. By the time the Park Service announced that it had made an agreement with Diversa Corporation to give Diversa a non-exclusive right to “bioprospect” microorganisms in Yellowstone in exchange for a share in potential future earnings, public interest groups were already objecting.
By 1998, a lawsuit was filed by the Edmonds Institute, the Alliance for Wild Rockies, and the International Center for Technology Assessment. The groups opposed commercial bioprospecting and called for an environmental assessment of the deal’s consequences, as required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). In 1999, Judge Royce Lamberth of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled in favor of the public interest groups on the NEPA claim, suspended the agreement between the Park Service and Diversa, and ordered an environmental assessment in accordance with the requirements of NEPA. Now, seven years later, the Park Service has published the court-ordered environmental assessment, and opened a less-than-90-day public comment period.
“It should cause more than a little concern to the public that the Park Service has taken seven years to concoct this assessment and the public gets less than 90 days to digest, study, and comment on its 340 pages,” remarked Burrows.
The Park Service’s DEIS outlines three possible plans of action: Alternative A which calls for no action, thus allowing continued bioprospecting without so-called benefit-sharing agreements; Alternative B which allows commercial bioprospecting but requires benefits-sharing agreements and some degree of public disclosure (but does not guarantee complete transparency); and Alternative C which prohibits commercial bioprospecting, only allowing noncommercial or public interest research and development of nation park resources. NPS advocates for a variant of Alternative B.
The Edmonds institute is launching a national initiative to educate the public about the Park Service’s actions, to encourage people to rally against commercial bioprospecting in national parks, and to send in comments to NPS. The Park Service will be accepting comments on its DEIS on bioprospecting until December 15, 2006.