Park Service Pursues Corporate Research Pacts
Bio-Prospecting Partnerships Pose Ethical and Conservation Conflicts
Washington, DC — The National Park Service (NPS) has unveiled detailed plans for licensing agreements with corporations developing products from park resources. This public-private profit sharing gives park managers direct and powerful incentives to commercially harness park resources, according to public comments filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
Today marks the end of public comment on a Director’s Order spelling out corporate research partnership policies and a 176-page Benefits-Sharing Handbook detailing steps park managers must follow. These are the product of a more than six-year regulatory effort by NPS to designate parks as “federal laboratories.”
The policies primarily target bio-prospecting enterprises which produce commercial products from the DNA, enzymes, bacteria or other micro-organisms collected from national parks. The agency estimates that tens of thousands of scientific journal articles and reports are generated from NPS research permits.
Under “benefits-sharing agreements,” the park would share some of the profits generated from research or discoveries made using park collections, organisms or resources. Funds would be used to supplement park budgets. As PEER points out in its comments, safeguards against abuse are limited in that –
- Park managers will have to give corporations incentives to induce them to sign away more than a nominal amount of profits;
- The agreements’ financial terms are treated as confidential trade secrets beyond public scrutiny; and
- The Order erects a “firewall” to prevent collusion in administering research permits to benefit a corporate partner. This firewall, however, stops at the desk of the park superintendent who signs off on both the permits and the benefits-sharing agreements.
“Park managers should not be put into the position of having to choose between protecting park resources from exploitation and growing the park’s budget,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, pointing out that park managers may be tempted to cut sweetheart deals and then go work or “consult” for corporate partners. “Benefits-sharing can become a form of backdoor payola.”
One big advantage for participating corporations is that they will be negotiating over complex commercial issues, such as market share and product development costs, far outside park officials’ expertise. The Director’s Order allows for bringing in consultants who can be paid out of the park’s share of profits.
“This convoluted policy could become a full-employment act for consultants, eating up what little benefits may be derived,” added Ruch, noting that NPS has already paid benefits-sharing advisors hundreds of thousands of dollars. “Transforming parks into corporate profit centers is fraught with peril for what many call America’s Best Idea.”
The embrace of corporate partnerships is central, however, to the current NPS Director Jon Jarvis’ strategic plan, titled “A Call to Action.” One major plank of that plan calls for soliciting a billion-dollar corporate endowment before the NPS centennial in 2016.