How should the National Park Service benefit if research in one of its parks leads to a commercially viable venture? That's been a thorny question at least since the mid-1990s, when a San Diego-based biotech company went exploring in Yellowstone for microbes with bizarre lifestyles.
We're talking microbes that can endure truly extreme environments, such as the hot, roiling waters of the park's hot springs. Known generically throughout the world as "extremeophiles," these critters come in a wide range of talents: Some can endure extreme heat, others extreme cold, some highly saline conditions, others are capable of gobbling up carbon dioxide and hydrogen gases, a skill possibly useful in cleaning up toxic wastes.
As you can imagine, in the industrial world these critters might be highly valuable if their skills are carefully harnessed. In the most recent matter involving the San Diego company, Diversa Corp., some groups sued Yellowstone over an agreement it reached with Diversa. While the court eventually upheld the agreement, which in part called for Diversa to pay the park $20,000 a year, the judge did order the Park Service to conduct a National Environmental Policy Act analysis of that agreement.
Now, seven years after that order was handed down, Park Service officials are trying to outline exactly what they expect commercial interests to give back to a park if their explorations proof fruitful.
On its face, perhaps this is a boring issue. But it possibly could have wide-ranging implications. How much should parks be compensated by biotech companies? Is the $20,000 a year Yellowstone negotiated with Diversa a reasonable amount? Hard to say, although the company, which has a market capitalization of almost $316 million, patented an enzyme it found in the park for use in oil and gas recovery, which isn't exactly a low-budget industry these days.
And, according to a 1997 Wall Street Journal story, over the years microorganisms found in Yellowstone's thermal features have been used to develop or improve on a wide range of industrial processes. Believe it or not, but according to the Journal the park's microbes have helped improve baked goods and produced a better-tasting head on a mug of beer.
How many parks might benefit from commercial relationships? Surely, Yellowstone is unique due to its thermal features. But perhaps there's something lurking in the temperate rainforests of Olympic National Park, or the dark depths of Mammoth Cave, or the hard-baked salt pan of Death Valley that could have commercial possibilities.
Will the possibility of raking in royalties lead some superintendents, in light of the Park Service's funding woes, to encourage biotech companies to come search their landscapes? Talk about commercialization of the park system.
These are all devil's advocate questions on a Friday afternoon. But you never know what science will turn up.
Anyway, the Park Service has released a draft Environmental Impact Statement that tries to answer whether the agency should "benefit in some way if the outcome of research conducted in the parks can be used for commercial purposes..."
Under the draft document's preferred alternative, reacher's would have to "provide some benefit back to the park, such as staff training, new research equipment, royalties or money to be used to support resource conservation and management."
You can check out the draft document at this website. Once there, select the "Washington Office" button and then click "Benefits Sharing."