Volume 11, Number 1
Winter 1998

Yellowstone Microorganism Exploitation put on Hold by Federal Judge

By Mike Bader
AWR Executive Director

In a nationally important decision, on March 24th U.S. Federal District Judge Royce Lamberth ruled that the National Park Service has engaged "in a dramatic shift in management policy" and must suspend its "bioprospecting" agreement with Diversa Corporation. The agreement was a nationally precedent-setting deal allowing commercial exploitation of microorganisms taken from the thermal features of Yellowstone National Park. The Park Service was to receive an undisclosed royalty amount, in addition to payments of $175,000 over five years.

"The decision effectively prevents the exploitation of our national parks solely for commercial gain," said Joseph Mendelson, lead attorney on the case representing the Edmonds Institute, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, the International Center for Technology Assessment and Bozeman, Montana resident and conservation activist Phil Knight. "This decision mandates that the American people, the owners of the parks, have to be consulted," said Mendelson.

The suit was filed in Washington, D.C. approximately one year ago to challenge the agreement, which was completed without preparation of an Environmental Impact Assessment as required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). It also alleges violations of the Administrative Procedure Act, the National Park Service Act, the Yellowstone Park Act, and the Federal Technology Transfer Act. A separate suit seeks to access to particulars of the agreement pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act. In his ruling, Judge Lamberth found the Park Service and Department of the Interior specifically violated NEPA and he ordered the agreement suspended until preparation of NEPA documents is completed. He has yet to rule on the other complaints alleged in the lawsuit.

"This issue was about whether this deal was really good for anybody," said Beth Burrows of the Edmonds Institute. "How can the public conclude anything when all this was done in secrecy?"

"What we are talking about is the potential for a modern-day gold rush," said Mike Bader of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies. "This isn't somebody doing a master's thesis. This a big business."

The controversy over the bioprospecting agreement has raged for the past year and a half since the deal was announced at Yellowstone by Vice President Al Gore and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. They claim this is an innovative way to fund resource protection in the park. However, opponents have claimed the deal runs afoul of the national park mandate that bans commercial sale or exploitation of park resources. Park visitors are not even allowed to remove pine cones from the parks. Moreover, as owners of the parks (the Park Service is the caretaker), the plaintiffs assert the Park Service has no right to hide the details of the agreement from the public.

Judge Lamberth agreed and hinted that he is skeptical of Park Service claims that they even have the legal authority to enter into such deals. In order to get around laws governing the management of the parks, the government attempted to claim that the entire Yellowstone National Park is one big "federal laboratory facility." The judge found such reasoning "absurd." Major corporations are now interested in commercializing work on microorganisms taken from Yellowstone's thermal features and hot springs, turning such life forms into patented products. One such organism, thermus aquaticus, was used to develop products worth more than $100 million annually to Swiss pharmaceutical giant Hoffman-LaRoche.

The ruling gained widespread national media coverage, with stories in the New York Times, Salt Lake Tribune, Denver Post, and newspapers throughout the Rocky Mountain region. The Park Service has said it will begin work on Environmental Impact Assessments immediately.


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