Why the Institute went to court

The Edmonds Institute is frequently asked why we did it, why did we sue the Department of the Interior and the National Parks Service. The Institute is, after all, about research and education, not litigation.

We sued because as we understood what was happening in Yellowstone and as we understood the law, it seemed that public agencies were acting in ways inconsistent with the missions they had been given by the people. It seemed they were acting counter to the protection of biodiversity, counter to the public interest, and even counter to the social contract that binds us all together.

To discover if we understood correctly, we, together with the Alliance for the Wild Rockies and the International Center for Technology Assessment, sued. Essentially, we asked the courts to help us do some research.

At the time our lawyer, Joseph Mendelson, III, of the International Center for Technology Assessment, filed the initial petition, the director of the Edmonds Institute wrote:

Why the Edmonds Institute is Upset about Yellowstone

125 years ago a roll call vote of 115 ayes, 65 nays and 60 abstaining made Yellowstone this country's -- and the world's -- first national park. Ulysses S. Grant signed it officially "ours" in 1872.

Home to more geysers and hotsprings than the rest of world combined, Yellowstone's 3,742 square miles of lakes, rivers, trails, meadows, mountains, streams and even grizzly bears hold a special place in the public consciousness, as witnessed by the overcrowding and the traffic to be found there in almost every season. A lot of us have passed through Yellowstone and a lot of us love the place - Old Faithful, Fountain Paint Pots, Grand Prismatic Spring and all.

Today, at the same time as the park is in a deep funding and conservation crisis, its wealth is being tapped by private prospectors. Some of them are going to make big money out of Yellowstone.

The resource being extracted is a kind of living gold -- microorganisms, tiny forms of life that exists only in the kinds of environments found at Yellowstone -- highly acidic and extremely hot thermal pools and geysers, for example.

These heat-loving microorganisms and the enzymes they produce can be extremely useful in industrial processes ranging from paper and beermaking to meat tenderizing and pharmaceutical creation.

Thermus aquaticus, one such useful microorganism, was taken from Yellowstone a few years back and one of its enzymes was used to drive the chain reaction (technically called "polymerase chain reaction" or PCR) that makes possible such processes as DNA fingerprinting. That enzyme earns for its "owners", Hoffman-LaRoche, the Swiss drug giant that holds its patent, more than $100 million a year, with earnings projected to increase to $1 billion a year by 2005. No money came to the national parks or the national treasury from the Yellowstone-derived microorganisms or its enzyme.

Today there are many corporate prospectors and their agents in Yellowstone and the National Park Service is looking for ways to devise licensing agreements with them to ensure that taxpayers gain from profits dervied from the national treasury. The Edmonds Institute, a non-profit public interest organization that focuses on issues related to the environment and technology, has several concerns in this matter: at the deepest level is our concern that the Park Service is participating in the commercialization and privatization of life. As MIT molecular biologist Jonathan King once said, "Privatizing life in a place like Yellowstone is like privatizing the sky - it is a misappropriation of the common heritage of us all...We didn't save Yellowstone to make a profit. We saved it because it has greater value."

On another level, the Edmonds Institute is concerned that if the Park Service is negotiating contracts and agreements with private individuals and corporations for access to materials in the national parks, those negotiations be made public, with adequate time and provision made for public comment. If the Park Service is negotiating, the public has a right to see that the Park Service does a good job of it, especially where the revenues concerned might be sufficient to pay the annual costs of the Park Service itself.

Transparent negotiations are essential in a democracy, especially where there appears to be an absence of the usual pressures of the market. There is, in the case of Yellowstone for example, no competitive bidding for the privilege of prospecting the parks.

While the Edmonds Institute does not endorse the commercialization of the parks or the patenting of microorganisms or the enzymes derived from them, it considers that if such commercialization and patenting are deemed by the national will to be desirable, especially in times like these where monies are short for such desirable public purposes as maintaining the national parks (not to mention maintaining social safety nets), then all aspects of the process whereby national treasures such as the parks are apportioned or made accessible to private companies and individuals must be made strictly public, with all negotiations transparent and subject to public comment and scrutiny. To do anything else is to be complicit in theft from the national treasury.

Beth Burrows

The Edmonds Institute