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Spreading the wealth: scientists are making groundbreaking discoveries in the national parks--but what's in it for the parks?

No one could have guessed how much money a thermal pool in Yellowstone National Park was worth when Thomas Brock took a tiny sampling in 1966 that yielded the microbe Thermus aquaticus. More than a decade later, scientists extracted an enzyme from that microbe that revolutionized DNA analysis; applications ranged from aiding criminal investigations to diagnosis and treatment of genetic diseases [see "Getting into Hot Water," Fall 2006]. A Swiss pharmaceutical company named Hoffman LaRoche recognized its potential and bought the patent for the process.

It was a smart move. Hoffman LaRoche has since made hundreds of millions of dollars from that patent. Yellowstone, on the other hand, hasn't seen a penny. But if it had, how would the National Park Service (NPS) ensure that such lucrative commercial interests wouldn't outweigh resource protection? Or is it in the Park Service's best interest to form partnerships with so-called "bioprospecters"?

This issue has raised eyebrows in a number of circles in recent years. In 1998, three nonprofit groups sued NPS over a potentially commercial relationship blooming in Yellowstone: The Diversa Corporation, a California-based biotechnology firm, was taking samples from thermal pools and conducting research that could benefit the park. The plaintiffs argued that the relationship broke the law, but a federal judge ruled in favor of the benefits-sharing agreement, stating that it was consistent with the Park Service's mission to conserve resources; that bioprospecting was not a consumptive use (researchers only collected small samples); and that bioprospecting did not constitute a sale or commercial use of park resources.

And indeed, Yellowstone reaped benefits from that partnership--scientists discovered six new microbial species from a Diversa sampling. But such a level of collaboration between the Park Service and Diversa was not routine.

"Most researchers don't have the time or incentive to share in-depth information with parks," says Sue Mills, a project manager with the NPS Benefits-Sharing Team in Yellowstone.

That could change. The federal judge that reaffirmed Yellowstone's authority to pursue the Diversa relationship tasked the Park Service with drafting an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the effects of benefits sharing in the parks, system-wide; the document was released last September, and at the time this issue went to print, NPS was seeking to extend the public comment period into late January. The draft suggests that all researchers should share profits or other benefits derived from their research on park property--and those benefits would be used to protect park resources.

Opponents to benefits sharing want NPS to prohibit specimen collection for research involving any potential commercial applications. But there's a flaw in this argument, says Tim Stevens, NPCA's Yellowstone Program Manager. "Whether or not research specimen collection happens at all is a completely separate permitting process from whether or not NPS shares in the benefits from research results," he says. "And they're separate processes for a reason: to help the Park Service avoid approving benefit-motivated research that could adversely impact park resources or the visitor experience. Opponents questioning whether private interests should even be conducting research in the parks are shooting at the wrong target."

Besides, scientists can't always predict whether or not their research will result in commercial applications, and consequently, some will simply decide to avoid parks. The act of forbidding scientists to use those results ultimately stifles science in the parks.

Under that scenario, a researcher seeking a cure for cancer could be discouraged from looking in the one spot on the planet that holds the cure, simply because it's in a national park. "Parks play a critical role in research and making the world a better place, and that work can be done while continuing to protect the critical resources and visitor experiences that make parks unique," Stevens says.

Moreover, most research projects involve taking tiny samples of park resources--say, a teaspoon of mud or a beaker-full of water--and companies must go through a separate, rigorous evaluation process before they even begin research within park boundaries.

NPCA is confident that the Park Service's plan won't impact park resources and the visitor experience, but is concerned that the current draft proposes to keep the details of these arrangements unavailable to the public. This, in NPCA's view, is the plan's biggest flaw. NPCA urges the Park Service to adopt the following policy:

* Agreements with private companies will be available to the public in their entirety, to the fullest extent allowed by law. The only way the Park Service can alleviate skepticism and concerns about commercialization is to ensure that this is an open process and all details of agreements are available for public review.

* All park resources will remain unimpaired for future generations. No negative impacts to park resources will occur as a result of research, or production process. Further, research and collection activities cannot diminish visitor experience.

* Revenue generated as a result of these agreements will be dedicated to the conservation of resources in parks, as opposed to other park needs or other federal government budget items.

* NPS will develop sound standards that prevent park managers from being tempted to enter into agreements based on park financial needs in other operational areas. Agreements must provide a fair and equitable return to the park and the American public.

* No benefits-sharing agreement will be developed that results in resources being used for commercial purposes--only the results derived from the research may be considered for commercial gains.

The Park Service will review public comments this winter; a final decision is expected by spring.

"Our parks contain natural resources found nowhere else in the world," Stevens says. "Yellowstone was designated a national park primarily because of those natural resources, and yet 99 percent of the microbes found there have yet to be studied or even named. By allowing researchers to carefully examine those resources, while upholding resource protection and the visitor experience, we're only going to make people appreciate these special places even more."
COPYRIGHT 2007 National Parks Conservation Association
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Copyright 2007 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Trail Mix
Author:Marquis, Amy Leinbach
Publication:National Parks
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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