Albion Monitor /News

Bioprospecting Planned For Yellowstone Park

by Jack Breibart

(AR) WASHINGTON -- The battle over the super-heated, invisible "bugs" of Yellowstone Park is on.

Two public interest groups have filed a formal complaint demanding that the Interior Department and the National Park Service stop plans to "commercialize Yellowstone Park's valuable biological resources."

The Edmonds Institute and the Washington-based International Center for Technological Assessment (ICTA) served the complaint to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and Park Director Robert Stanton on August 19 in anticipation if the U.S.'s first bioprospecting contract between a national park and a corporation.

The five-year agreement, announced last month at a ceremony celebrating the 125th birthday of the park, gives the Diversa biotech company of San Diego the right to search in the park's valuable geothermal pools for microorganisms whose enzymes have proven immensely valuable in many fields -- including medicine and industry.

In return, Diversa will make an annual contribution to the park -- reported at $35,000 a year -- and share royalties and scientific information. The annual $35,000 would be charged against royaltries.

"Closed-door commercialization of life in Yellowstone is theft of our national heritage"
The complaint calls the Park Service's actions "arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of agency discretion and a violation of national law." It also charges "that extraction of microorganisms from United States National Parks may cause unreasonable adverse effects on the environment."

"The agreement was made without proper public involvement," ICTA legal adviser Joe Mendelson told the American Reporter. "Is it a fair contract? We don't know because we can't find out anything about it."

Beth Burrows, of the Edmonds Institute of Edmonds, Wash., said in a statement that "closed-door commercialization of life in Yellowstone is theft of our national heritage."

Preston Scott, director of the World Foundation for Environment and Development, was called in by Yellowstone two years ago to help in negotiate bioprospecting contracts. He rejects the accusations.

He said that workshops on the issue were first held in September, 1955. "Anybody who was interested in contributing constructively could have been there and at other workshops."

In its complaint, however, ICTA and Edmonds claim "the conferences have not been opens meetings, provided records to the public, announced in the Federal Register, or or included members of the public that adequately represent interests outside of the federal government or commercial sector."

As a result, they say, the National Park Service "is in violation of the Federal Advisory Act."

Scott sees the agreement not as a theft of national resources but as finally "putting Yellowstone into position" to collect some "financial, scientific and intellectual" returns.

"Sharing benefits are the key words here," Scott said. "It was legal for corporations using search permits to go into the park, make profitable finds and not return anything to the park. That will not happen now."

The leadership of Yellowstone, Scott said, has come to realize that "science is not a threat to the resources."

Scott said there have been "10 hits" -- microorganism discoveries that yielded hundreds of millions of dollars for biotech firms -- in the park which have all failed to benefit Yellowstone. "That's more than have been made anywhere else in the world," Scott said.

Hoffman-LaRoche is making $100 million a year on its patent
The most famous of the "hot bugs" to come out of the park -- and the one which set off the rush to Yellowstone -- is Thermus aquaticus, which produces the Taq enzyme. Taq is an important component of the ground-breaking process known as PCR (polymerase chain reaction) which revolutionized biotecnology research.

The Cetus Corporation was the original holder of the PCR patent and sold it to Hoffman-LaRoche, a Swiss pharmaceutical giant, for $300 million.

ICTA and Edmonds say that Hoffman-LaRoche is making $100 million a year on its patent, with earnings projected to increase to $1 billion a year by 2005.

"It is mandatory that there be public oversight to ensure a fair and equitable return for the nation from the use of national resources," said Burrows.

Royalty terms of the Diversa-Yellowstone agreement have not been revealed.

The ICTA's Mendelson told the American Reporter that he had heard that royalties were somewhere from 0.5 to 1.5 percent, a figure that Yellowstone's chief scientist, John Varley, reportedly had been seeking in negotiations.

The ICTA and Edmonds complaint says that "as required by law, the Department of Interior/National Park Service is required to give this petition prompt consideration. Petitioners are requesting a substantive response ... within 90 days. In the absence of an affirmative response, petitioners will be compelled to consider litigation in order to achieve the agency actions requested."

A telephone message to Yellowstone Park officials was not returned.

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Albion Monitor September 22, 1997 (

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