Benefits-Sharing in the National Parks
Environmental Impact Statement
What are Some of the Rules for
Doing Research in National Parks?
Scientific research in the national parks is encouraged and regulated by Congress, the Department of the Interior, the National Park Service, and the individual park unit in which the research will occur.
The National Parks Omnibus Management Act of 1998 encourages a broad utilization of parks for scientific purposes. "The Secretary is authorized and directed to assure that management of units of the National Park System is enhanced by the availability and utilization of a broad program of the highest quality science and information." (16 USC 5932)
The authority to issue research permits rests with the superintendent of each park unit. This way, each park's individual concerns and resources are addressed in each research permit. The superintendent has the authority to include special terms and conditions deemed necessary to protect park resources with each permit. NPS welcomes proposals for scientific studies designed to increase understanding of the human and ecological processes and resources in parks and proposals that seek to use the unique values of parks to develop scientific understanding for public benefit.
The Code of Federal Regulations (36CFR1.6) allows park superintendents to issue permits only if there will be no adverse impact on:
- public health and safety
- environmental or scenic values
- natural or cultural resources
- scientific research
- implementation of management responsibilities
- proper allocation and use of facilities
- the avoidance of conflict among visitor use activities
The Code of Federal Regulations further restricts scientific research that involves specimen collection (36CFR2.5). The superintendent may allow specimen collections of plants, fish, wildlife, rocks, or minerals if:
- collection is necessary to stated scientific goals
- there is a written research proposal
and NOT if collections would:
- result in damage to other natural or cultural resources
- affect adversely environmental or scenic values
- result in the derogation of the values or purposes for which the park area was established
When a scientist wants to perform research in a national park unit, he or she must begin by submitting an application and a proposal that details what activities will occur in the park and what analyses will occur in the scientist's lab or office. Each proposal is reviewed for compliance with National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requirements and other laws, regulations, and policies.
Sometimes proposals are received for research activities that are not be appropriate in a national park. While park managers will work with applicants to arrive at a mutually acceptable research design, if there are proposed research activities for which no acceptable mitigating measures (changes in research methods that better protect the park)are possible the application is denied.
Research and Biodiversity Prospecting
Bioprospecting can sometimes be a consequence of an academic science project. Such serendipitous bioprospecting is allowed and even encouraged by federal law and NPS policy. Other bioprospectors have a clear goal, such as discovering a new medicine, enzyme, or other useful compound. Targeted bioprospecting is also allowed in the NPS since it is a part of broad scientific inquiry.
Research specimens collected from parks are never sold. There is an important distinction between "sale or commercial use" of natural products collected from national parks (which is prohibited under 36 C.F.R. § 2.1) and the discovery of valuable useful applications from research results (whether commercialized or not). In other words, research specimens cannot be commercialized, but the knowledge gained in conducting research can be used commercially. This distinction is supported by developments in U.S. intellectual property rights laws and has been explicitly recognized at some national parks such as Yellowstone that host major research activities. In addition, a federal court has upheld the legality of the distinction between NPS research specimen collection and research results.
Just as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant licenses to use biological materials acquired from NIH in exchange for certain negotiated benefits without transfer of ownership, park research permits do not grant any exclusive or proprietary rights to the researcher.
NPS research permits operate in ways similar to the biological materials transfer agreements issued by the NIH, which grant the licensee the right to use biological materials accessed from NIH. These arrangements are "licenses" (not "sales"), and specimens remain in federal ownership (precisely because they are "licenses to use" and not a "sale").