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Corporations Win Again!
Bush Opens National Parks to Bio-Prospecting
by MICHAEL COLBY

We interrupt this election season to remind you who really has control of the government, the land and our lives: U.S. corporations. So while the two parties put on their best seductive dance for prospective voters in November, the merry corporations just keep rolling along, seemingly carefree about which political party will "win" the opportunity to continue meeting their corporate demands.

Consider, for example, the election-season news that the National Park Service is moving forward with its plans to allow private corporations to "bioprospect" for microorganisms in national parks like Yellowstone in exchange for a piece of the action. Bioprospecting, or bio-pirating in this case since it’s being taken from the public without our consent, is the act of mining for living organisms ­ anything from microorganisms to plant and animal genes — in the pursuit of science and/or profit.

And whom should the corporate bioprospectors thank for this unprecedented gift of access to the public’s natural resources? Well, both political parties and the various federal agencies they’ve ruled over, of course. Because it was the Clinton-led Park Service that first hatched this idea and now it’s the Bush-led Park Service that is seeing it through. Yep, bipartisanship seems to work best when corporate interests are involved.

The bipartisan path to commercial bioprospecting in our beloved national parks began in 1997 when the Bruce Babbitt-led Park Service announced on the 125th anniversary of Yellowstone National Park that they had reached an agreement with the multinational Diversa Corporation to allow them to bioprospect in Yellowstone as long as the Park Service would be allowed some of the future loot that might accrue from its findings. But before Babbitt could wipe the grin off his face and Diversa could get their extraction machines in place, three public interest groups cried foul and filed suit against the Park Service to negate the agreement.

The groups, the Edmonds Institute, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies and the International Center for Technology Assessment, objected to the agreement for a number of reasons, most notably because this precedent-setting agreement amounted to the "commercialization of the commons" and there was little to no public input from we, the people who are supposedly the stewards of those commons. And they won a partial victory when a U.S. District judge ruled in 1999 that the Park Service had to provide an assessment of the possible environmental impacts of commercial bioprospecting in the parks.

"Basically, the Park Service got caught making a deal without consulting the owners," said Beth Burrows, president of the Edmonds Institute, one of the three plaintiffs in the case. "But the courts put a screeching halt to their plans, forcing them to at least bring this process out of their backrooms and into the light of day."

Now, seven years later, in late September of this year, the Park Service finally released its court-ordered environmental impact statement (EIS) seeking to formalize its plan to share the economic bounty with corporations that bioprospect in our nation’s 400-plus national parks. The Park Service’s EIS, entitled "Benefits-Sharing," is, as its very title suggests, more of a promotion for its plans to allow commercial bioprospecting than a true environmental assessment of this theft of the commons. And while the Park Service took its sweet time ­ seven years ­ to prepare the EIS, it’s giving the public a mere ninety days to respond to it (comment period ends on December 15th, visit www.ParksNotForSale.org for more information on how to submit an online comment).

Specifically, the Park Service outlines three possible plans for action in its corporate bioprospecting assessment: A) To take no action, thus allowing continued bioprospecting without the so-called benefit-sharing agreements; B) To allow commercial bioprospecting but require benefits-sharing agreements and potentially some degree of public disclosure of those agreements; and C) To prohibit commercial bioprospecting, only allowing noncommercial or public interest research and development of national park resources.

The Park Service calls "option B" its "preferred" option. But the public interest groups who forced them to produce this assessment are campaigning hard for "option C," a ban on corporate, for-profit raids on the living organisms found in our National Parks.

"It’s not hard to see the setup being engineered: once the commercial potential of the national parks is demonstrated, it becomes easy to call for cutbacks on federal support for the parks and new commercial exploitation to make up the difference," writes David Bollier of OnTheCommons.org and the author of Brand Name Bullies: The Quest to Own and Control Culture. "After all, why should taxpayers be burdened when the parks could be made ‘self-sustaining’ through market activity? This is part of a classic impulse in politics to warp the language: War is peace, freedom is slavery, and commercial exploitation is preservation."

Bioprospecting for pure science and the public’s interest is certainly a noble cause, especially when the genetic material being mined for is on the public’s land. It’s quite another thing, however, to allow private corporations to mine in any or all of our 400 National Parks for the purpose of patenting, privatizing, cloning and/or profiting from the extracted living material that is supposed to belong to us all.

"The public needs to remember that Yellowstone and the other national parks were designated as parks to protect them from exploitation," said Michael Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies. "We don’t want to turn back the clock by exploiting them now."

As the demand for bioprospecting has grown, so have the places from which the bioprospecting corporations have sought to extract organisms, including Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone Park scientists have discovered, for example, that the Park’s thermal features contain a microbial community with a biological diversity similar in degree to tropical rainforests.

"In a lot of ways the Park Service did us a favor by including a ban on commercial bioprospecting in its list of options for bioprospecting in the parks," said Burrows of the Edmonds Institute. "Because it highlights the very clear distinction between public interest research of public resources and corporate raiding and privatizing of those same resources. Now the public has to sound off and make sure this is the chosen."

A broad coalition of groups has organized under the ParksNotForSale.org banner to educate and activate the public on this bipartisan corporate giveaway. The courts have forced the Park Service to listen. Now it’s the public’s turn to speak up.

MICHAEL COLBY is a Vermont-based freelance writer and campaign coordinator for the Edmonds Institute. He can be reached at: mcolby@broadsides.org

For more information and to find out how to take action, go to: www.ParksNotForSale.org