Commercial Bioprospecting in Our National Parks

Our national parks are part of an intergenerational compact to preserve our most beautiful national treasures in perpetuity. Now the Bush Administration is taking yet another step to trash this principle by opening up the parks to commercial exploitation. The latest gambit (following on the heels of snowmobiling in the parks) is a proposal by the National Parks Service to allow private corporations to scour Yellowstone Park for micro-organisms that could be used in commercial products. The final decision could end up affecting all national parks and lands occupied by indigenous peoples.

The idea of commercializing the national parks actually arose during the Clinton era, in 1997, when the Park Service announced a deal with the Diversa Corporation giving it non-exclusive “bioprosecting” rights in exchange for a cut in the potential revenues. It’s not hard to see the setup being engineered: once the commercial potential of the national parks is demonstrated, it becomes easy to call for cutbacks on federal support for the parks and new commercial exploitation to make up the difference. After all, why should taxpayers be burdened when the parks could be made “self-sustaining” through market activity? This is part of a classic impulse in politics to warp the language: War is peace, freedom is slavery, and commercial exploitation is preservation.

Fortunately, three public interest groups filed suit in 1998 arguing that the Park Service failed to conduct an environmental impact assessment, as required by the National Environmental Policy Act. (The three plaintiffs were the Edmonds Institute, Alliance for Wild Rockies and the International Center for Technology Assessment.) In 1999, a federal court agreed, suspended the Diversa agreement, and ordered an environmental assessment. Now, seven years later, the Park Service has published the assessment and has given the public a scant 90 days to comment on the 340-page report before moving forward with new rules for commercial exploitation of the parks.

The idea of scientific exploration in the national parks is hardly objectionable, particularly if it’s meant to improve our understanding of ecosystem protection. But that’s not what the NPS has in mind here. If you care about the national parks, you should submit comments before December 15, 2006, here. Enclosures of the commons rarely come through dramatic public takeovers, but rather through incremental back-door subterfuges. This is one of them.