Don't Miss Out

Subscribe to OCA's News & Alerts.

Everything's For Sale: National Parks Service Considers Opening Parks to Bioprospecting

In a season when crowds are rioting over $600 video game consoles, and O.J.
Simpson could sign a deal for millions with the Murdoch empire to reenact
the "hypothetical" murder of his wife and her friend, it may seem like
absolutely everything is now for sale in our mercenary culture. And that
far too many people are buying. (Though, mercifully, not in O.J.'s case.)

The latest evidence of this comes from, of all places, one of the most
trusted and admired of federal agencies. The National Park Service (NPS) is
quietly taking public comment through December 15 on a proposal to allow
private companies to "bioprospect" in our national parks: to commercially
mine, not the mineral riches of a park, but the genetic resources of
plants, animals, and microorganisms in territories specifically set aside
for stewardship in the public trust.

The proposal is contained in a September 15, 2006 court-ordered
Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), an outgrowth of a lawsuit over a
similar 1997 proposal at Yellowstone National Park during the Clinton
administration. Steady privatization has been underway at the Park Service
for more than 20 years, but the requirement that the NPS actually study the
effects of bioprospecting seemed to shelve this particular bad idea.

And then, magically, seven years later, the EIS appears, laying out three
options that would cover not just Yellowstone but all parks. The document,
subtly entitled "Benefits-Sharing," reads less like an environmental study
and more like a sales pitch for its preferred choice, "option B," to allow
commercial bioprospecting but require "benefits-sharing" agreements and
potentially some degree of public disclosure of those agreements. (Or,
potentially, not.) The other two choices the public is to comment on are
option A, to do nothing -- thus allowing bioprospecting without so-called
benefit-sharing; and option C, which is to only allow this genetic mining
for "noncommercial or public interest research." Not exploiting our parks'
genetic treasures at all is not even listed as an option in the document.

In the Global South, home to much of the world's genetic diversity, this
battle has already been underway for decades. In a process reminiscent of
Columbus, transnational corporations have been using Western courts and
laws to patent genetic codes and plant and animal life that existed long
before any humans were around to "discover" them or own their "rights." The
struggle against such legal chicanery has often been led by indigenous
peoples who've relied upon the riches of their environments for millennia
without the assistance of lawyers or scientists (or shareholders).

Suddenly, they've been told they no longer have the right to use those
riches -– or, worse, they can use them, for a price, paid to distant
companies with no truly legitimate claim to their use.

This, in the South, is referred to as "biopiracy," and it seems like an
appropriate term to start using in America as well. National Parks,
beginning with Yellowstone (whose geothermal features were instrumental in
both the park's original founding and the commercial appeal of
"bioprospecting"), were set aside as lands to be owned and used by the
public. The lands' early stewardship, beginning with Yellowstone, was
specifically intended by Congress to exclude high-value heritage lands from
the rapacious development of much of the surrounding West. We are the
owners of these lands –- but their resources are now apparently for sale,
in ways large and small, without the permission or even knowledge of the
rightful owners. That's piracy.

An even scarier aspect of the NPS proposal is the precedent it sets, and
the question of where that precedent stops. Can any life form or portion
thereof existing in the parks be given away (or "benefit-shared," if the
public agency gets a cut)? In any public lands? Using eminent domain,
anywhere at all? What's to stop the government, using existing law and
schemes such as this, from deciding by regulatory fiat that your genome
should be "benefit-shared" by some state agency? It's an awfully slippery
slope, one in which, thanks to two decades' worth of privatization of
public resources, we're already well downhill of the crest.

The Park Service will, and has, argued that in a time of scarce public
funding, commercial opportunities such as this can bring in valuable
revenue to help preserve the park system. But what's the point of
preserving a public park system whose parts can all be privately claimed?
More to the point, these resources are not the federal government's to
sell: they belong to all of us. And most especially to the point, there are
some things that simply shouldn't be for sale. Life is an obvious one. It's
one thing to sell chickens; it's another to sell the exclusive rights to
Gallus gallus. The only difference here is size.

Only a few weeks remain for public comment on the NPS proposal. Take some
time to weigh in. Otherwise, some big corporation –- let's call it
Helixco –- will be using tweezers, small but lucrative ones, for its
Christmas stocking this year.

Public comment deadline is December 15, 2006. For more information on
bioprospecting in national parks, visit: [1] or [2].

About author Geov Parrish is a Seattle-based columnist and reporter for
Seattle Weekly, In These Times and Eat the State! He writes the daily
Straight Shot for WorkingForChange. He can be reached by email at [3] -- please indicate whether your comments may be
used on WorkingForChange in an upcoming "letters" column.