By J. Bishop Grewell
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
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.