A soon-to-be-implemented policy for scientists who are permitted to conduct research in national parks will give the National Park Service a share of any profits from their work.
The policy is expected to go into effect early next year following more than a decade of concern and a lawsuit over "bioprospecting" in Yellowstone National Park. Bioprospecting _ a hybrid of the words "biodiversity" and "prospecting" _ is the search for organisms that promise scientific breakthroughs in medicine and chemistry.
"This is about the public, which owns places like Yellowstone, getting some kind of benefit if someone has a commercial product based on research which started in the park," said Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash.
The new "benefits sharing" policy doesn't specify what percentage of profits the National Park Service should receive in every case. But a document released Monday outlining the policy offers a rough estimate of the potential benefit to the park system _ between $635,000 and $3.9 million a year, eventually.
The new policy applies to all 84 million acres in the national park system, including the more than 200 parks hosting independent research. In many of those parks including Yellowstone, the main quarry of bioprospectors is bacteria.
An organism living in the wilderness and visible only with a microscope might seem an unlikely source of big money. But keep in mind how much DNA testing has helped to diagnose disease, solve crimes, study plants and animals, and even solve old archaeological mysteries over the last 20 years or so.
In the mid-1980s, scientists discovered that a bacteria species from a Yellowstone hot spring could make DNA testing much more practical. Because of that Nobel Prize-winning research, DNA testing has since become commonplace _ an industry worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year.
The National Park Service hasn't directly shared in those profits even though the bacteria species, Thermus aquaticus, arguably belonged the American public.
"It's been a long time coming," Frank Roberto, a microbiologist who's been studying Yellowstone bacteria for nearly 20 years, said of the benefits sharing policy.
Roberto works for the Idaho National Laboratory, a federal lab 70 miles southwest of Yellowstone. The lab near Idaho Falls holds several patents derived from research involving Yellowstone bacteria.
Recent science includes looking for ways to more efficiently break down organic matter for use in biofuels, such as ethanol. The lab allows its scientists to share in any profits from discoveries they patent.
In Yellowstone, just about all research involves collecting no more than a test tube or petri dish of microscopic organisms _ not nearly enough to cause environmental damage, Nash said.
Also, the Park Service isn't looking for new revenue, he said, for "filling potholes."
Roberto said it seems reasonable to him to give the National Park Service a share of profits related to research in national parks. But not everyone agrees that private concerns should be profiting from the parks.
"The parks would probably do better financially if they just rented out to Disneyland. But Americans, I would argue, wouldn't want them to do that," said Michael Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies based in Helena, Mont.
Allowing companies to profit from research in the parks amounts to privatizing park resources, Garrity said.
"It's a public resource and should continue to be a public resource," he said.
The alliance and others sued the Park Service in 1999 over an agreement between Yellowstone and Diversa, a San Diego company that was allowed to bioprospect in exchange for sharing any profits. It was the first agreement between a national park and a research company involving the for-profit collection of park organisms.
A federal judge in Washington, D.C., sided with the Park Service in 2000 but ordered an environmental analysis of bioprospecting in the park system. That process resulted in the new policy.
The Washington, D.C.-based National Parks Conservation Association, is satisfied the policy will ensure that research is conducted transparently, said Patricia Dowd, the group's Yellowstone program manager.
Yellowstone is famous for its large wildlife _ elk, wolves and bison. Yet the smallest wildlife, the bacteria living in the park's hot pools, remain something of a mystery, Dowd said.
"Most people, they're not really excited about looking at microbes," she said. "But who knows what the benefits are?"