Bioprospecting: Mining Our National Parks One Gene at a Time

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.

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 Dec. 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 Sept. 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 under way 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. Their 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 some piece of 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 point is 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 Dec. 15, 2006.

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