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Lawsuit Targets Yellowstone Bioprospectors

WASHINGTON, D.C.--Three environmental organizations announced here that they took legal action today to stop Yellowstone National Park from entering into a formal agreement with a San Diego-based biotech company that wants to collect microorganisms at the park's many hot springs. In August 1997, the National Park Service announced plans to allow Diversa Corp. to sample soil, water, and detritus over the next 5 years in return for a one-time fee of $175,000 and up to 10% in royalties on any commercial products derived from microbes found in the park.

Such an agreement is "a major change in public policy," says Beth Burrows, director of The Edmonds Institute in Edmonds, Washington. The institute and the Washington, D.C.-based International Center for Technology Assessment argue that there has not been enough public input into the park's decision to enter into a cooperative research and development agreement (CRADA) with a company. The National Park Service, Burrows contends, is supposed to protect--not exploit--organisms in its protected habitats. When the groups' call for an environmental assessment was denied, along with its request for disclosure of the financial arrangements of the agreement, they teamed up with a regional organization called the Alliance for the Wild Rockies to file a lawsuit against the Department of Interior and its National Park Service.

In their complaint, the organizations contend that although the Federal Technology Transfer Act encourages CRADAs that enable the federal government to share in profits derived from joint ventures, the act does not permit national parks to profit from their natural resources. The lawsuit also says the plan violates laws that require the parks to be preserved in an unspoiled state and fails to consider the potential environmental impact that these agreements might have. "We object to this and any other efforts to commercialize [resources] from national parks," says Ronni Flannery, a lawyer for the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.

But John Varley, director of Yellowstone Park's Center for Resources, disagrees. "There's opportunity to [reap] benefits for conservation," he says. Already, a company is making millions of dollars from an enzyme called Taq polymerase, derived from a Yellowstone microbe, and the park has seen none of it, he points out. According to Varley, this agreement can help ensure that future profits are invested back into the parks and can serve as a model for other parks with similarly valuable resources. Of course, first the park service must contend with the lawsuit.