Don’t part out our national parks

 

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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • MONTANA DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    YOUR POSITION WITH TNC The Director of Development (DoD) is responsible for directing all aspects of one or more development functions, which will secure significant...
  • DEVELOPMENT AND OPERATIONS COORDINATOR
    Development & Operations Coordinator Terms: 1.0 FTE (full-time), Salary DOE ($45,000 - $55,000) Benefits: Paid Time Off (12-24 days/year depending on tenure), Paid Holidays (10/year),...
  • GUIDE TO WESTERN NATIONAL MONUMENTS
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at cmcpress.org
  • CARBON RANCH PLANNER
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • EDUCATION AND OUTREACH DIRECTOR
    Education and Outreach Program Director The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic,...
  • WESTERN DIVISION DIRECTOR OF FIELD PROGRAMS
    DEADLINE TO APPLY: October 29, 2021 LOCATION FLEXIBLE (WESTERN HUB CITY PREFERRED) Overview The Land Trust Alliance is the voice of the land trust community....
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • FREELANCE GRAPHIC DESIGNER & PROJECT COORDINATOR (REMOTE)
    High Country News (HCN) is seeking a contract Graphic Designer & Project Coordinator to design promotional, marketing and fund-raising assets and campaigns, and project-manage them...
  • FILM AND DIGITAL MEDIA: ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF INDIGENOUS MEDIA, CULTURAL SOVEREIGNTY AND DECOLONIZATION (INITIAL REVIEW 12.1.21)
    Film and Digital Media: Assistant Professor of Indigenous Media, Cultural Sovereignty and Decolonization (Initial Review 12.1.21) Position overview Position title: Assistant Professor - tenure-track Salary...
  • REAL ESTATE SPECIALIST
    To learn more about this position and to apply please go to the following URL.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • CENTRAL PARK CULTURAL RESOURCE SPECIALIST
    Agency: Oregon Parks and Recreation Department Salary Range: $5,203 - $7,996 Position Title: Central Park Cultural Resource Specialist Do you have a background in Archaeology...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    Come live and work in one of the most beautiful places in the world! As our Staff Attorney you will play a key role in...
  • ARIZONA GRAZING CLEARINGHOUSE
    Dedicated to preventing the ecological degradation caused by livestock grazing on Arizona's public lands, and exposing the government subsidies that support it.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo (friendsoftheinyo.org) is seeking a new Operations Manager. The Operations Manager position is a full-time permanent position that reports directly...
  • WATER RIGHTS BUREAU CHIEF
    Water Rights Bureau Chief, State of Montana, DNRC, Water Resources Division, Helena, MT Working to support and implement the Department's mission to help ensure that...
  • DEVELOPMENT & OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • DESERT LANDS ORGANIZER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo seeks a Desert Lands Organizer to assist with existing campaigns that will defend lands in the California desert, with...
  • IDAHO CONSERVATION LEAGUE
    Want to help preserve Idaho's land, water, and air for future generations? Idaho Conservation League currently has 3 open positions. We are looking for a...