Tiny microbes living in the mud-pots and geysers of Yellowstone National Park have sparked a mammoth controversy.
Scientists think the genetic materials of these microbes could lead to medical breakthroughs or, at the very least, improve consumer products. In 1997, park officials signed an agreement with a corporation that had previously been prospecting the microbes for free–Diversa Corp. of San Diego. Diversa promised to pay the park $175,000 over five years, as well as future royalties from any discoveries.
Up to twenty other biotech companies showed interest in signing similar deals. It looked as though backlogged repairs at the United States’ oldest national park had found an untapped money tree. But then U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth ruled from Washington D.C. that while bioprospecting in Yellowstone is not illegal, compensating the park for it is.
Lamberth argued that parkgoers might allow trespass into Yellowstone for science or education, but “commercial exploitation of that same parkland may reasonably be perceived as injurious.” Even though Diversa–which has patented more than 500 enzymes since 1994–had a permit to bioprospect, the instant its managers wanted to compensate the park, Justice Lamberth ruled, they needed to consider the environmental impact and solicit public input. “Commercialization” had made the bioprospecting illegal without further review.
Biotech companies have prospected in the park for years. One Swiss company earns more than $100 million per year from a Yellowstone thermophile that helps in DNA fingerprinting, and the park hasn’t seen a dime of it. But with the 1997 Diversa agreement, park officials realized that the commercially valuable microbes might aid Yellowstone’s cash flow. Diversa’s CEO Terrance Bruggeman estimated that products derived from Yellowstone microbes could be worth between $12-17 billion dollars on the world market. The royalty could have been quite healthy.
Then in rode a small band of environmental groups and Justice Lamberth brandishing guns of enviro-morality.
Realistically, any Yellowstone visitor who has bought a moose-head hat, paid a lobster-dinner price for a scoop of ice cream at Old Faithful, or simply paid the park’s entry fee has commercialized Yellowstone. Dan Janzen is a scientific adviser to Costa Rica’s Guanacaste Conservation Area and a University of Pennsylvania biology professor. He observes that nature oriented tourism “has been conducting commercial development of biodiversity and ecosystems in, and downstream from, national parks since the first train tracks were laid to Yellowstone’s front door more than 100 years ago.” Yet, somehow we don’t find tourism as evil as biotech. Why?
The traditional ballyhoo for tourism’s benevolence is that it doesn’t extract any resources. But this is a myth. Tourists take up space and time. The difference between four people at a lake and forty degrades an experience. And people transport microbes. Says Park Service’s chief of public affairs David Barna: “You and I as tourists on the boardwalks probably carry more of these thermophiles home on our sneakers than the researchers take out.”
The environment is not sullied when a dollar exchanges hands. In fact, the environment benefits from the funds that commercialization can bring. Thanks to programs like its fee demonstration program, the Park Service is learning what free market environmentalists have always known: When it is allowed to function, the market preserves the environment. Someone needs to let a small band of misguided environmentalists and one federal justice in on the secret.
J. Bishop Grewell is a Research Associate with PERC and a regular columnist for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.