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Sunday, November 26, 2006

Do We Allow Bioprospecting in our Nat'l Parks

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

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

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: or

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