The National Park Service has finalized a policy that will allow parks to negotiate payments from researchers who use the results of their studies for commercial products or services.
Parks will negotiate on a case-by-case basis for monetary or other benefits, such as scientific equipment or lab work, from researchers whose projects involving specimens collected from parks result in useful discoveries or inventions with some commercial application. The compensation would go to the conservation of NPS resources.
About 270 national parks issue research permits, but only a small portion are expected to be affected by the decision, NPS said. Negotiations typically will not occur until after the research has been conducted, the agency said.
"Implementing these changes is not about commercializing the parks," NPS Director Jon Jarvis said in a statement. "This decision is about the public receiving some benefit from commercial projects that result from analysis of samples collected in national parks."
The decision does not change the NPS research permit process, which will remain separate from the benefits-sharing negotiations. It also does not affect the ban on commercial use or sale of park specimens or the prohibition on issuing permits for activities that would harm park resources.
In 1998, Congress authorized NPS to enter into benefits-sharing agreements with researchers. But the following year, after a legal challenge over an agreement between Yellowstone and biotechnology firm Diversa Corp., which extracted microorganisms from the park's thermal pools for potential commercial use, a federal court directed NPS to review the potential effects of such agreements.
The National Parks Conservation Association has supported development of the policy, saying the plan won't affect park resources or the visitor experience and that forbidding researchers to use their results would stifle science in the parks. But some other advocacy groups blasted the decision.
"The Park Service is intent on doing the wrong thing, turning our national parks over to private corporations to benefit corporate shareholders rather than the American public," said Michael Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.
The Park Service over the years has hosted numerous research projects but claimed little or no benefit from the work, even when the research led to highly lucrative commercial ventures.
In one notable case, the Swiss pharmaceutical company Hoffman LaRoche made millions of dollars in the 1980s using a microbe from a Yellowstone hot spring to establish a method for DNA testing. Other examples include a new antibiotic, also derived from Yellowstone organisms, and the discovery in New Mexico's Carlsbad Caverns of enzymes that attack leukemia cells (Land Letter, Dec. 10, 2009).
Click here to read the record of decision.