Oct. 6, 2006 – Long considered natural gems, Americaâ€™s national parks may soon serve as a different kind of treasure trove.
The National Park Service is planning to open national parks, including potentially millions of acres of protected wilderness, to "bioprospecting" â€“ a process by which private businesses extract organisms from natural habitats in the search for useful biochemicals or genetic information.
The plans center on "thermophiles," organisms living in ecologically rich thermal pools and geysers, such as those found in Yellowstone National Park. Companies have for years sought to derive lucrative products using the microorganisms. Environmental organizations have in turn campaigned against such extraction as a raid of public natural resources by industrial interests.
Last month, the Park Service presented a Draft Environmental Impact Statement outlining the economic and environmental implications of bioprospecting operations, and opened a public comment period that will last through mid-December. The agency only agreed to issue the assessment after public-interest groups launched a court battle in the late 1990s.
According to the Edmonds Institute and the International Center for Technology Assessment, two groups that originally sued the Park Service, the organisms and enzymes derived from them can be used to create products like beer, meat tenderizers and paper. Bioprospecting could also be a boon to pharmaceutical manufacturers: Swiss drug company Hoffman-LaRoche used one type of enzyme discovered through bioprospecting to aid in its patented DNA research.
The Park Serviceâ€™s statement presents different proposals for a national bioprospecting program, and the agencyâ€™s preferred option involves a "benefits-sharing arrangement" in which the government and industry both reap profits. Companies would be allowed to conduct research using organisms gathered from the parks, and build on the discoveries in the developing, patenting and marketing of products. The plan also proposes some public-disclosure obligations for bioprospecting ventures, though corporate or government interests could request special legal exemptions from the requirements.
Environmental watchdog organizations are decrying the governmentâ€™s proposal as a "commercialization of the commons." Groups like Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility are calling for full transparency regarding the commercial interests of government agencies and personnel â€“ pointing to potential ethical conflicts between business deals and the public mission of preserving wilderness.
In a statement responding to the Park Serviceâ€™s proposals, Joseph Mendelson, legal director of the International Center for Technology Assessment, said, "Legally, the National Park System is not set up to be a commercial resource base, but the [Bush] administration seems dead set in favor of opening up the parks to commercial extraction."