Feds Seek Share of Profits From Research in U.S. Parks

WASHINGTON, DC, January 26, 2007 (ENS) - The National Park Service is finalizing its plan for profit sharing with corporations that extract organisms from America's national parks and develop commercial uses for those organisms.

Under the latest version of the proposal, any of the nearly 400 national parks could enter into a "benefits-sharing agreement” with corporate research firms.

The original motivation for the plan arose out of a 1997 effort by the California biotechnology firm Diversa Corporation to extract microorganisms living in Yellowstone National Park's geysers for commercial use.

Three alternatives are explored in the proposal, which was issued in the form of a Draft Environmental Impact Statement, DEIS. The public comment period is open through Monday.

The companies would provide the National Park Service, NPS, with monetary or in-kind compensation for any profits derived from use of park resources, but under the alternative preferred by the Park Service, public disclosure of the royalty or other financial terms of these agreements would be optional, not required.

geyser

The Beehive geyser at Yellowstone National Park. The world's first such reserve, Yellowstone was established by act of the U.S. Congress in 1872. It is now also a World Heritage Site. (Photo courtesy NPS)
"Our national parks are not corporate laboratories,” said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, PEER, a national association of workers in natural resources agencies.

PEER is urging the Park Service not to allow commercial development of park resources. "If the Park Service is determined to walk this treacherous path, it needs to do so in the light of day without deals cloaked in proprietary secrecy," Ruch said.

Several thousand scientists conduct studies each year involving national park research specimens.

The commercial use or sale of research specimens themselves is prohibited by regulation, but the commercial use of knowledge derived from specimens through research is not prohibited.

Commercial use of research results has, in the past, been left up to researchers without involvement from the NPS and without any further obligation or responsibilities to the Park Service.

In 1998, Congress enacted the National Parks Omnibus Management Act which authorizes the NPS to enter into benefits-sharing agreements with researchers.

But in 1999, following a legal challenge over a benefits-sharing agreement between Yellowstone National Park and Diversa, a federal court directed the Park Service to review the potential impacts of the agreement.

The latest proposal, in the form of a Draft Environmental Impact Statement, DEIS, responds to the court’s directions and examines potential environmental impacts of adopting benefits-sharing throughout the National Park System.

Currently, the Park Service does not negotiate benefits-sharing agreements. This would remain the case under Alternative A, the no action alternative.

The Park Service would continue to issue research permits, and research specimens would continue to be usable for approved research purposes - including activities that might lead to discoveries that could be useful for health care, nutrition, agriculture, environmental management, industrial, or other processes with potential commercial or other economic value.

Choosing Alternative A would have adverse impacts on Yellowstone National Park’s natural resource management program, the Park Service says. The agreement between Yellowstone and Diversa, currently suspended, would be nullified. Under that agreement, Diversa used its proprietary techniques and databases to perform two genetic analyses needed for Yellowstone natural resource management at no cost to the park.

Yellowstone

The Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park is the largest hot spring in the United States, and the third largest in the world, next to those in New Zealand. (Photo courtesy NPS)
In addition, an up-front payment of $20,000 per year for five years would not come to the NPS. That amounts to just 1.14 percent of the FY 2002 operational funding for natural resource management identified in Yellowstone’s Business Plan, but Diversa also would not make any performance-based payments to the park, an amount that is unknown because the agreement is suspended.

Under Alternative B, benefits-sharing would be allowed. Specific terms and conditions describing the various non-monetary and monetary benefits would be negotiated individually for each agreement.

Under Alternative B, benefits-sharing would be allowed. specific terms and conditions describing the various non-monetary and monetary benefits would be negotiated individually for each agreement.

Within Alternative B, there are three choices.

Alternative B1 requires disclosure of all terms and conditions, including financial compensation.

Alternative B2 allows optional disclosure of all terms and conditions, this is the Park Service's preferred alternative.

Under this alternative, all benefits-sharing agreements would be made available to the public in their entirety upon request unless one or more parties objected to the release of any specific information for reasons allowed under the federal Freedom of Information Act, FOIA. An objecting party would have to demonstrate that the information was proprietary or that disclosure would harm an interest protected by FOIA.

mud

Valuable micro-organisms may live in the yellow mud of Yellowstone National Park. (Photo courtesy USACE)
A non-confidential summary of such information, including the total monetary benefits generated by the benefits-sharing agreement, would be prepared and included in the agreement for release to the public upon request.

Alternative B3 does not permit disclosure of any royalty rate or related information at all. Still, a non-confidential summary of royalty or financial information, including the total monetary benefits generated by the benefits-sharing agreement, would be prepared and included in the agreement for release to the public upon request.

The Cooperative Research and Development Agreement, CRADA, proposed by the Park Service in this DEIS is consistent with the terms and conditions of the initial agreement between Yellowstone National Park and Diversa, a company that develops high-performance specialty enzymes for uses such as biofuels.

But if Alternative B is adopted, Yellowstone and Diversa would have to negotiate a new or amended CRADA, if Diversa wanted to commercialize research results based on study of specimens collected after 1998. At that time, their research permit required negotiation of a benefits-sharing agreement before research involving NPS specimens could be commercialized.

Under Alternative C, the Park Service would prohibit research specimen collection for research involving any potential commercial applications in all units of the National Park System. This is the alternative favored by PEER.

The National Parks Conservation Association, NPCA, an educational and advocacy organization based in Washington, DC, wants to see benefit sharing agreements but supports Alternative B1.

"The public should have a right to view the entirety of any agreement," the conservation group says.

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Research takes place in many of the U.S. national parks. Here divers conduct research on coral reproduction and settlement in Florida's Biscayne National Park. (Photo by Richard Curry courtesy NPS)
In addition, the NPCA says, "Park resources and visitor experience must not be directly or indirectly adversely affected," by research activities.

The NPCA would like to see all scientific information resulting from any agreement shared with the park, and any compensation received should be used to benefit resource protection and research.

"No benefits sharing agreement should be developed that results in resources being used for commercial purposes," the NPCA says. "Any research contemplated under benefits sharing agreements cannot result in the direct commercial use of those samples removed from parks."

The Park Service agrees with that position, stating in the DEIS, "No element of any alternative would authorize any consumptive use of any park resources, or otherwise change the existing general prohibition against consumptive harvesting of park resources for any reason."

But PEER argued in its comments on the DEIS that agency-wide promotion of commercial research could also be used to facilitate mineral exploration, such as proposals for drilling in Alaska's Katmai National Park, seismic exploration for oil in national parks or creating markets for rare plants or animals from parks.

In addition, warned Ruch, "corporate research agreements may be used to circumvent park wilderness protections."

Ruch also sees the possibility of "questionable revolving-door arrangements with park officials who negotiate the corporate revenue-sharing deals."

The Park Service says that issuance of a research permit would not necessarily involve a benefits sharing agreement, because many research projects do not have the potential to result in commercially valuable discoveries.

"In the event that research activities involved the use of traditional knowledge or other valuable proprietary input from a Native American community or other source, it would be the responsibility of the park and the researcher to include such individuals or groups in any benefits-sharing arrangement as appropriate," the NPS says.

Under this proposal, the NPS seeks to foster technological advances but would forbid its own employees or former employees from earning any revenue from inventions they develop.

"Park managers should not be given direct fiscal incentives to recruit corporate partners,” Ruch said. "The danger is that a park will relax its administration of resource safeguards in pursuit of a new revenue stream."

The DEIS is open to public comment through Monday, January 29. To find it online click here.