You are here

Giving the Parks Over to Bioprospectors


    Back in September I posted about the National Park Service's proposal as to how it might benefit from bioprospecting in the parks, where private interests explore parks for commercially viable organisms.
    Towards the end of the post I wondered aloud whether this prospect might encourage park superintendents, already hard-pressed for operating funds, to "encourage biotech companies to come search their landscapes? Talk about commercialization of the park system."
    Well, there are some folks who share those fears, so much that they've launched a website specifically to fight the Park Service's proposal.  At "Parks Not For Sale" you can find more background on commercial bioprospecting, bone-up on the case in Yellowstone back in 1997 that led to this brouhaha, and find a ready-to-go letter of opposition you can fire off to the Park Service asking it to abandon commercial bioprospecting in national parks.
    On its face, this seems like a pretty cut-and-dried approach to protecting national parks from commercialization, a fight I believe must be fought. However, does "Alternative C," which opposes bioprospecting in the parks "for any commercially related research purpose," the option endorsed by the "Parks Not For Sale" folks, really accomplish that goal?
    If I recall correctly, back in the 1960s Thomas Brock, then a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison doing non-profit research in Yellowstone, found a microbe living in a hot springs that he dubbed Thermus aquaticus for its affinity for hot water.
    Well, long story short, over the years this microbe generated millions -- if not billions -- of dollars in commercial applications, even though it was a non-profit venture that discovered it. Shouldn't the Park Service, and American taxpayers who fund the agency and pay for the parks, have benefited from that discovery?
    My thinking is that none of the alternatives the Park Service currently is offering when it comes to "benefits sharing"  is the solution to this issue. After all, what's to prevent a university from bioprospecting in Yellowstone, finding something commercially viable, and then selling it to the highest bidder?
    The outcome under that scenario would once again, as was the case with Thermus aquaticus, leave the Park Service on the outside looking in and losing out on any royalties it arguably should be entitled to.

    With only two cups of coffee in my system this morning, I don't know what the best solution to this dilemma is, but I don't think it can be found in any of the current three options.


Gathering the thermophilic bacteria from Yellowstone did no damage to Yellowstone's thermal features. But it allowed the advancement of DNA replication technology that aids in putting criminals in prison and getting the innocent out. The only question on permitting this should be: Does the gathering of the microbes, etc. damage the park? If not, then the benefits sharing arrangement makes the most sense. I don't see why 'corporation' is a dirty word. Corporations make the pharmaceuticals that keep us alive and well, make products we need and provide jobs for everyone not self-employed or working for the government.

Kurt-- My take on bioprospecting in the parks is that the research permit should contain a simple clause stating that the NPS, ie, the American taxpayers, should share in any profits realized from commercial applications of discoveries made in the park. The percent is negotiable. That way, everyone up front knows the rules of the game. I doubt very much whether it would discourage scientific research in parks and would reward the current generation of taxpayers for the commitment of their predecessors to preserve and protect the resources of our parks. I haven't looked at all the alternatives of the document mentioned in your post, but I hope this is one of them. Parks are not for sale, but bioprospecting in them shouldn't be free either. Rick Smith

Add comment


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

National Parks Traveler's Essential Park Guide