Prospecting for Profits

Yellowstone, the country's first national park, is home to more geysers and hot springs than anywhere else in the world. Now it is seen as a source of what could be described as organic gold. This "gold" would be the microorganisms that live in Yellowstone's unique ecosystems -- like Thermus aquaticus, a heat-loving microbe discovered in the park's Mushroom Pool in 1966.

One of Thermus's enzymes, known as the Taq polymerase, became the key to the polymerase chain reaction technique for manipulating small amounts of genetic material because of its ability to withstand high temperatures. In the 1980s scientist Kary Mullis won the Nobel Prize for perfecting this technique, which has become a key component of molecular biology, medical research and law enforcement, making possible the practice of DNA fingerprinting.

Since buying the patent for the Taq enzyme for $300 million in 1991, the Swiss drug company Hoffman-LaRoche has earned more than $100 million a year from it. Meanwhile Yellowstone and the National Park Service have gotten not a cent from this windfall.

Over the past six years the cash-strapped park service has been planning to change that, with a plan to allow companies to patent microorganisms found in national parks and develop profit-sharing agreements with the park service for their use.

In 1997, at Yellowstone's 125 birthday celebration, the National Park Service and U.S. Department of the Interior announced the signing of a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) with the Diversa Corporation, a San Diego-based company specializing in research in hot springs. Under the plan Diversa would pay Yellowstone $100,000 a year to extract biological tissues, sediment, soil, water and rocks from the park and the park would get a small percent of royalties from any products developed from this research. At the time of the Diversa agreement signing Yellowstone also had at least 15 other similar agreements in the works.

To many in the park service and the corporate world the plan seemed like an ideal fit. Because of the small size of microbial samples -- usually an eyedropper or teaspoon of water -- this kind of research was not seen as overly invasive. And it could be a way to generate badly needed funds for the park service.

But opposition to the plan quickly surfaced. Critics noted that while Yellowstone should share in profits derived from its resources, the patenting and royalty process creates the temptation for massive prospecting of microbial resources in our nation's parks. And Yellowstone's charter specifically forbids the commercial use of plants and animals from the park.

"Allowing biotechnology companies to extract natural resources from the parks for profit may affect the ability of the parks to serve their inspirational and expressive functions," says a 1999 article in the Ecology Law Quarterly. "In deciding to enter into the Diversa agreement, the Park Service has framed the question as whether bioprospecting companies should pay for the right to seek their fortunes in the national parks. The real question, however, is whether they should have that right at all."

In 1998 a lawsuit was filed by the Edmonds Institute, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, the International Center for Technology Assessment and Montana resident Phil Knight against the U.S. Department of the Interior alleging that the Diversa agreement violated various federal statutes and environmental protections.

While research at Yellowstone and other parks has continued, as a result of the lawsuit this and other CRADA agreements have been stalled pending an environmental assessment study, expected to be released sometime this year.

Patent Profit

Research in Yellowstone or other national parks is nothing new; Yellowstone's first research permit for the collection of microbial materials was issued in 1898 and hundreds of research permits are granted by the park every year.

But the potential for corporations to patent the results of their research and make massive profits off them appears to be escalating. Already enzymes extracted from the hot springs are used for cleaning industrial machines, making paper and beer and tenderizing meat, among other things. And it has been reported that so far only one percent of the microbes in Yellowstone's hot springs have been discovered.

"As the benefits of biotechnology have become increasingly visible, the demand for bioprospecting has also grown," says the lawsuit. "This increased demand places greater and greater value on places like Yellowstone that have a high level of biodiversity, here greater concentrations of genetic information offer the best chance of discovering biochemical materials that may lead to important (and commercially rewarding) projects."

On a large scale the physical process of prospecting for these enzymes could have serious effects on the environment, especially fragile and rare environments like Yellowstone's hot springs. And some see its philosophical implications as even more disturbing -- they see it as nothing less than the privatizing and marketing of life.

"You say you're only privatizing microbes, which to most people are what you find squooshed on the bottom of your shoe," said Beth Burrows, executive director of the Edmonds Institute, a Washington-based non-profit public interest group. "But then what's next? Privatizing plants? Animals? Human beings?"

Privatizing Workers

While microorganisms are on the road to being privatized for profit, so are the park service and forest service employees who are charged with protecting the environments that are home to these microorganisms and other diverse forms of plant and animal life.

Under a mandate from President Bush that federal agencies study at least half of all potentially commercial positions for privatization, thousands of park service and forest service jobs along with hundreds of thousands of other federal jobs in various sectors are being considered for privatization. According to the American Federal Government Employees (AFGE) union, the largest federal employees union in the country, 850,000 to one million jobs -- or over half the federal workforce -- are likely to be privatized in the next few years. This includes park and forest service employees as well as prison guards, border patrol officers, veterans' healthcare providers and more.

In April National Park Service Director Fran Mainella announced that 900 park service jobs are already slated for immediate replacement by private contractors, and in the coming months another 1,323 more jobs will be privatized. These 2,200 plus jobs represent about 13 percent of the Park Service's total workforce, according to the non-profit watchdog group PEER (Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility). The bulk of these jobs are maintenance and administrative positions, though hundreds of scientists, archaeologists and environmentalists are also on the roster for privatization.

Privatization plans for the Forest Service were announced in early July. Forest jobs being privatized include wildfire control, law enforcement, environmental protection and timber production.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Over the next three years thousands more park and forest service jobs will also be studied to see if they can be more cheaply filled by private contractors. By the end of fiscal year 2007, the forest service is expected to privatize 10,000 of its 44,000 jobs.

"This will be a fairly radical transformation of the way these agencies operate," said Jeff Ruch, executive director of PEER. "Ultimately it will lead to corporations taking over management of our resources altogether. They're proposing replacing career scientists with consultants who will be primarily motivated by getting the next contract renewed. So they are much less likely to report inconvenient findings back to management."

Diversity Suffers

To add insult to injury, not only are the park and forest service undergoing these cuts, but they are being forced to pay for the studies to determine whether certain jobs should be privatized out of their own already-strapped budgets. In a memo to the Assistant Secretary for Policy, Management and Budget, the National Park Service Director noted that the studies cost about $3,000 per job, for a total of $2.5 to $3 million to comply with Bush's mandate. The memo outlines how the source of these funds has not been identified, and how park services will need to be curtailed, during the busiest summer months to boot, in order to come up with the funds. The memo also explains that the privatization push will be a major blow to the park service's diversity, since a high proportion of the jobs being studied are filled by women or minorities.

"In recent years we have sought to increase the diversity of our agency workforce," says the memo. "These studies have the potential to impact this effort, for example 89 percent of the jobs proposed for study in the Washington D.C. area may affect the diversity of our workforce. Studies in San Francisco and Santa Fe show large concentrations of diverse [employees in jobs being studied] as well. This potential impact upon this workforce concerns us."

Compromising Safety

The privatization means that thousands of well-paying, mostly union jobs will be replaced by largely non-union private contractor positions. Critics of the plan also fear that as is often the case with privatization, it will mean a reduction in quality and thoroughness of services, as companies cut corners to maximize their profits and keep costs low to win bids for future contracts. For the park and forest service, this could mean less maintenance work done protecting fragile environments and the safety of parkgoers, and less effective fire-fighting and other crucial services.

In just one example of how privatization is expected to compromise safety across the spectrum of jobs, a June letter to Secretary of Commerce Donald Evans signed by a number of Congressmen points out how privatization of the federal seafood inspectors "would risk an increase in the incidence of serious illness, death or other problems from contaminated seafood or seafood that otherwise fails to meet inspection standards."

The Congressmen acknowledge the fact that private contractors would potentially compromise their performance in search of profit. "We would add that utilizing private sector firms for this vital inspection function would also at least raise the idea in the minds of some that the inspection contractors could certify questionable seafood shipments in order to maximize earnings," says the letter.

In a worst-case scenario, the privatization of park and forest service jobs will dovetail with the search for profit from national parks, whether through timber sales, increased tourism or the privatization of micro-organisms. The same or affiliated companies that are seeking to buy timber or explore and privatizate micro-organisms could also be hiring the park employees who theoretically oversee the protection of the environment.

"It's often true that companies that get contracts for environmental protection are related to companies that are polluting, so it's a conflict of interest," said Brendan Danaher, a policy analyst for the AFGE. "We think if there's one thing that should remain under the public sector it's protecting the environment."

Ruch notes that under the new structure, "you could have Georgia Pacific National Forest -- a park run by a timber company. There's no reason why Walt Disney couldn't bid on managing the Everglades national park."

Burrows fears the dual privatization of employees and micro-organisms could open the door to out of control prospecting, patenting and selling of micro-organisms (along with other forms of exploitation of resources) with little regard for bioethics or protection of these organisms and their often fragile environments.

Resistance Brewing

Between the unions, non-profit groups like PEER and various legislators, there is plenty of resistance to the federal employee privatization plan in general and the park and forest service privatization specifically. In June U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV) in the House and Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) in the Senate introduced the Park Professionals Protection Act, which would prevent the privatizing of park and forest service jobs.

"The livelihoods of the ambassadors to the national parks are at risk for the purpose of hiring individuals whose politics mirror the Bush administration's anti-conservation priorities," said Rahall, adding that it is a "bogus idea" to think outsourced contractors could do a better job than career federal employees.

Reid said, "Our national parks were created to protect special places in nature as a legacy to future generations. They should be managed for posterity, not profit."

Burrows thinks that given the psychic and symbolic importance our ever-diminishing areas of natural wilderness and beauty have for the American people, not only are park and forest service employees and micro-organisms in danger, but our culture and way of life as a whole.

"These are our commons, the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone are the only two areas in the whole United States that people see as our common areas," she said. "If you don't have that as a common public area free from commercialization, what do you have left?"

Kari Lydersen, a regular contributor to AlterNet, also writes for the Washington Post and is an instructor for the Urban Youth International Journalism Program in Chicago. She can be reached at karilyde@aol.com.

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