AWR Blog

National Park Service to Allow Commercial Bioprospecting in Parks — Public Interest Groups Cry Foul

Edmonds Institute (EI)
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER)
Alliance for Wild Rockies (AWR)

PRESS RELEASE — FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

contacts
EI: Beth Burrows, (425) 775-5383, beb@igc.org
Mike Bader, (406) 721-4835, mbader@montana.com
PEER: Jeff Ruch, (202) 265-7337, extension 22, jruch@peer.org
AWR: Michael Garrity, (406) 459-5936, garritymichael@yahoo.org

National Park Service to Allow Commercial “Bioprospecting” in Parks — Public Interest Groups Cry Foul

September 22, 2006, the National Parks Service (NPS) finally acquiesced to a seven-year-old court order to publish an environment assessment of its controversial plans to allow commercial bioprospecting in the U.S. National Parks.

In the name of “Benefits-Sharing,” for the sake of a portion of future potential profits, the Park Service is setting forth the details that will allow private corporations to extract and make money from organisms taken from the national parks, including millions of acres of wilderness areas.

The document NPS put out for comment, technically called a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS), drew criticism from public interest advocates who oppose the “commercialization of the commons,” including those who won the legal case in 1999 that forced NPS to do the DEIS in the first place.

“This is, sadly, another step along the path of turning our national treasures into corporate booty,” said Beth Burrows, Director of the Edmonds Institute (EI), one of the plaintiffs in the original lawsuit over this matter. “We support scientific research in the parks,” she noted. “But we are against commercializing the parks and their wildlife. The purpose of the Parks is not Business.”

“Legally the National Park System is not set up to be a commercial resource base, but the Administration seems dead set in favor of opening up the parks to commercial extraction” stated Joseph Mendelson, legal director of the International Center for Technology Assessment (ICTA), another of the plaintiffs in the original lawsuit over bioprospecting in the Parks.

“There are commercial activities in the Parks,” explained Mike Bader, former Park employee acting as a consultant for EI. “There are hotels and guides and gas stations but all those are in direct support of visitor services, a primary purpose of the Parks.”

“The public needs to remember that Yellowstone and the other national parks were designated as parks to protect them from exploitation,” said Michael Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies. “We don’t want to turn back the clock by exploiting them now.”

Frank Buono, former NPS employee now on the board of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), warns, “The NPS must be very careful that private commerce does not distort the preservation mission, or the ethics of its public servants. Gaining some funds from possibly secret deals is not worth either.”

The controversy over bioprospecting in the parks first came to light in 1997 as Yellowstone National Park was making plans to commemorate its 125th anniversary. By the time the Park Service announced that it had made an agreement with Diversa Corporation to give Diversa a non-exclusive right to ‘bioprospect’ microorganisms in Yellowstone in exchange for a share in potential future earnings, public interest groups were already objecting.

By 1998, a lawsuit was filed by the Edmonds Institute, the Alliance for Wild Rockies, and the International Center for Technology Assessment. The groups opposed commercial bioprospecting and – pointing to existing national law (National Environmental Policy Act, NEPA) – called for an environmental assessment of the deal’s consequences. In 1999, Judge Royce Lamberth of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, ruled in favor of the public interest groups on the NEPA claim, suspended the agreement between the Park Service and Diversa, and ordered an environmental assessment in keeping with the requirements of NEPA. Now, seven years later, the Park Service has published the court-ordered environmental assessment, and opened a less-than-90-day public comment period.

“It should cause more than a little concern to the public that the Park Service has taken 7 years to concoct this assessment and the public gets less than 90 days to digest, study and comment on its 340 pages,” remarked Burrows.

The Park Service’s DEIS outlines three possible plans of action: Alternative A which calls for no action, thus allowing continued bioprospecting without so-called benefit-sharing agreements; Alternative B which allows commercial bioprospecting but requires benefits-sharing agreements and some degree of public disclosure (but does not guarantee complete transparency); and Alternative C which prohibits commercial bioprospecting, only allowing noncommercial or public interest research and development of nation park resources. NPS advocates for a variant of Alternative B.

According to Burrows, “Because this DEIS has such important implications for how we think about nature, the national parks, and our own duties of stewardship to the lands and critters of this planet,” several of us are launching a national initiative to educate the public about the Park Service’s actions, to encourage people to rally against commercial bioprospecting in national parks, and to send in comments to NPS. “Of course, we hope the public will support Alternative C,” she said, “but more importanty, the public should comment. These special places and special critters are part of their heritage and they should not leave the decision-making to others.”

The Park Service will be accepting comments on its DEIS on bioprospecting until December 15, 2006.

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For more information on bioprospecting in national parks, visit:
http://www.parksnotforsale.org
or
http://www.edmonds-institute.org/yellowstone.html

Other contacts on these issues:
Frank Buono (PEER): (520) 803-0870
Joe Mendelson (ICTA): (202) 547-9359

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