When I worked as a seasonal ranger at Yellowstone National Park some years ago, I came to believe that magnificent places like this should remain free from commercial exploitation. Yellowstone and our other national parks belong to all of us as a public commons to be protected for future generations. Park rangers tell visitors to take only photographs and leave only footprints, and park regulations prohibit the removal of elk antlers, rocks and even pinecones.
This preservation mandate began with the Yellowstone Park Act of 1872, but it may be about to change. The National Park Service has proposed what a federal judge calls “a dramatic shift in management policy.” Through a program called commercial bio-prospecting, the door is cracking open to the commercial exploitation of a wide variety of national park resources.
Bio-prospecting may conjure up images of 19th century miners with picks and shovels, but it is the large biotechnology companies that have combed the parks’ natural features since the early 1990s. They search for unique microscopic creatures found only in the geyser basins of Yellowstone, or they inspect the blood of wildlife along with the parks’ plants, trees, fungi, rocks and soils.
Thanks to the riches of Yellowstone’s hot pools, one company developed a means for advanced DNA testing that led to millions of dollars in profits. This woke up the Park Service, which sought to share in the profits of any future gold mines. In the mid-1990s, Yellowstone negotiated a first-of-its-kind cooperative research and development agreement with a private-sector biotech company. That agreement, however, was challenged by several nonprofit groups, on the grounds that it violated federal law by failing to analyze potential environmental impacts.
Now, the Park Service proposes to expand the scope of commercial bio-prospecting to all 400-plus units of its park system, covering 84 million acres, as well as to millions of acres of wilderness within parks. The agency attempts to end-run the traditional prohibitions on commercialization by proposing that when biological samples are “altered” or “improved” after being removed from a park, they can be commercially developed. It also proposes to negotiate itself a cut of the action in the form of a percentage, or royalty payment, on commercially valuable discoveries.
Commercial bio-prospecting creates a dangerous precedent because it opens the door to parting out our parks. Unfortunately, the public and Congress can’t readily judge the merits of these commercial deals. Key aspects can be withheld whenever the companies involved consider the information a proprietary trade secret.
Yet the Park Service sees only benign environmental impacts to this commercial exploitation. Important questions remain unasked: Is commercial bio-prospecting even legal, and is it in the public interest? I think the answer is no on both counts. Despite the Park Service’s clever wording in its environmental impact statement on the issue, the letter and spirit of the laws creating Yellowstone and the National Park Service clearly indicate park resources and wildlife are not to be marketed for commercial profit.
Moreover, commercial research is qualitatively different from research conducted in the public interest, with important differences in transparency and access. Researchers pursuing advanced degrees or those affiliated with public-research institutions do work that is generally intended to result in scientific papers submitted to peer-reviewed journals or for publicly available theses. Their methods and results are available to the public and other researchers, allowing everyone to benefit from advances in research methods and techniques, the free exchange of knowledge and the broadened base of scientific literature.
Commercial researchers do not as a rule publish their results in peer-reviewed journals, and the fruits of their research are effectively trade secrets, not shared.
The solution to this problem is simple: The Park Service should prohibit research that is expressly commercial. Our parks hold a lofty place in our spirit and psyche and are not like everywhere else. Americans have always taken comfort in the knowledge that national parks are left unimpaired for future generations. I’d like to believe that some things in this country are not for sale.
Mike Bader is a natural resource consultant based in Missoula, Montana.