Could National Park Service's Plans For Corporate Licensing Agreements Exploit The Parks?

What commercial fortunates might be awaiting discovery in national parks, and how might the National Park Service benefit from them? Runoff in Norris Geyser Basin in Yellowstone photo by Kurt Repanshek.

National Park Service officials are striving to see the agency is justly compensated for any commercial technologies that arise from natural resources found in the park system, but could their approach lead to "exploitation" of the parks?

That concern was voiced by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility this week as the Park Service closed the public comment period on a draft 176-page Benefits-Sharing Handbook. The draft, the group maintains, is titled towards corporate partners and lacks transparency.

Mundane-sounding as it might be, could this handbook bring loud criticism to the Park Service for what some see as opening up the National Park System to commercial bio-prospecting? Back in 2007 several groups rose to oppose the Park Service's move in this direction, launching a website, Parks Are Not For Sale, that derided commercial research in the parks. (That website no longer exists.)

"Commercial bioprospecting in general undermines the basic mission, purpose and spirit of the National Parks," the groups said at the time. "While we strongly support scientific research in the parks, we believe there should be no research within the park system that is expressly commercial."

PEER, in voicing its comments on the draft handbook this week, said the guide is the product of a more than six-year regulatory effort by NPS to designate parks as “federal laboratories.”

The policies primarily target bio-prospecting enterprises that produce commercial products from the DNA, enzymes, bacteria or other micro-organisms collected from national parks, the advocacy group said in a release, adding that the Park Service estimates that tens of thousands of scientific journal articles and reports are generated from NPS research permits.

The question of whether the National Park Service should benefit if research in one of its parks leads to a commercially viable venture has been a thorny question at least since the mid-1990s, when a San Diego-based biotech company went exploring in Yellowstone National Park for microbes with bizarre lifestyles. These are "extremeophiles," types of organisms that can endure truly extreme environments, such as the hot, roiling, acidic waters of the park's hot springs. These microbes 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.

In the industrial world these organisms might be highly valuable if their skills are carefully harnessed. In the 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.

According to the draft handbook, under “benefits-sharing agreements” a specific park would share some of the profits generated from research or discoveries made using park collections, organisms or resources. Funds would be used to supplement park budgets.

However, PEER stresses, safeguards to prevent abuse of this process are limited. For example, it notes that "park managers will have to give corporations incentives to induce them to sign away more than a nominal amount of profits; the agreements’ financial terms are treated as confidential trade secrets beyond public scrutiny; and the (Director's) Order erects a 'firewall' to prevent collusion in administering research permits to benefit a corporate partner. This firewall, however, stops at the desk of the park superintendent who signs off on both the permits and the benefits-sharing agreements."

“Park managers should not be put into the position of having to choose between protecting park resources from exploitation and growing the park’s budget,” said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, pointing out that park managers may be tempted to cut sweetheart deals and then go work or “consult” for corporate partners. “Benefits-sharing can become a form of backdoor payola.”

According to PEER's analysis of the handbook, an advantage for corporations is that "they will be negotiating over complex commercial issues, such as market share and product development costs, far outside park officials’ expertise. However, the group adds that parks would be able to retain consultants, who in turn would be paid out of the park’s share of profits.

“This convoluted policy could become a full-employment act for consultants, eating up what little benefits may be derived,” said Mr. Ruch, noting that NPS has already paid benefits-sharing advisors hundreds of thousands of dollars. “Transforming parks into corporate profit centers is fraught with peril for what many call America’s Best Idea.”

When Traveler last addressed this issue, in 2009, we raised the question of how much should parks be compensated by biotech companies? Is the $20,000 a year Yellowstone negotiated with Diversa -- which in 2007 merged with a corporation called Verenium -- a reasonable amount?

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 could there be something valuable 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?

With the public comment period now closed on the draft document, it likely will be some months before the Park Service approves a final form. How it is worded remains to be seen.

Comments

A good illustration of just how complicated and potentially divisive almost anything has become in the modern world.