To park officials, the offer from Diversa Corp. seemed fair and right.
After all, if the California biotechnology company could potentially make millions from its research in Yellowstone National Park, why shouldn't the park--and the public to whom it's beholden--share in the profits?
But the offer and the contract Yellowstone and Diversa eventually signed caused a furor among environmentalists and others, who say it amounts to selling off a national treasure to private companies.
Perhaps more troubling to them, though, was the way in which the agreement was reached--secretly, and without public disclosure of its terms.
"This seems to me an end run around the right of the American people to know how their property is disposed of, and under what conditions, and by whom, and for what reason," said Beth Burrows, of the Edmonds Institute, a Washington state public interest group.
The lawsuit her group and others filed three years ago has left such agreements with national parks on hold. It also has left questions about the role of the parks and how to uphold their missions.
Scientists for decades have used the unique natural wonders of national parks for research. In Yellowstone, they come to examine such features as thermal pools, which can hold unusual bacteria and organisms. Some scientists search for keys to new cancer medication, while others hunt for enzymes that might break down radioactive waste.
A few are called "bio-prospectors"--scientists who search specifically for substances that may lead to commercially valuable products. But neither they nor the companies for whom they work have paid to use the park's resources, nor have they shared profits from products that originated from research within the parks.
At least 18 patents have resulted from research at Yellowstone, park officials say.
An enzyme called Taq polymerase was developed from a microbial species discovered in Yellowstone that proved critical to replicating DNA. The patent was sold in 1991 to Switzerland-based F. Hoffmann-LaRoche Inc. Court documents filed in the lawsuit against the park contend the patent for Taq polymerase generates about $100 million a year for F. Hoffmann-LaRoche. The company would not confirm that.
Diversa Corp., a developer of farm, chemical, industrial and pharmaceutical products, first approached Yellowstone about a profit-sharing agreement in 1995, said company spokeswoman Hillary Theakston. Under a final agreement signed three years later, Diversa agreed to pay a fee and royalties from any products that came from research conducted in the park, she said.
But what irritated many groups was the lack of financial specifics. Both the company and the park refused to say what share of profits the park would receive.
"The agreement was negotiated behind closed doors, but it was released in its entirety except for royalty rates," said John Varley, director of the park's Center for Resources. The company, he said, considered that proprietary information.
Several groups, including the Edmonds Institute, sued in 1998, a move that surprised park officials.
"Frankly, we didn't think anybody would really see it as anything other than doing it for the public good," said Michael Soukup, associate director for natural resource stewardship and science at the National Park Service.
A judge ordered the park to conduct a study of how such agreements might affect park resources, a process Yellowstone is just now beginning. But he upheld the nature of the contract.
The contract was crafted under an act that allows federal laboratories to enter "cooperative research and development agreements" with nonfederal entities for the sharing of research.
Theakston said Diversa was simply trying to ensure that Yellowstone got to share in its potential success.
"We're trying to be above-board and to share benefits with the places we're taking samples from," she said.
Since the judge's decision, Diversa, which had worked in Yellowstone prior to the contract, has voluntarily suspended bio-prospecting within the park pending the outcome of the environmental assessment.
Environmental groups are still upset with the judge's ruling that details of the agreement may be kept secret.
"There is a lack of transparency and oversight in these agreements," said Ryan Shaffer of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, also involved in the lawsuit. "With Diversa, the public wasn't able to see the terms."
"Parks were set aside to preserve natural resources and values, and set aside for the enjoyment of future generations," he added. "This could shift that mission to making money on resources."
Park officials defend the profit-sharing agreement, noting that had such a contract been in place when the Taq polymerase enzyme was developed, the park might have benefited handsomely.
"We've been ripped off," Varley said. "When you consider that these organisms are owned by the American public and the American public didn't . . . get any benefit in this whole thing, then it doesn't pass the red-face test."
Varley said the park is glad to have had a role in Taq polymerase, which he said has affected "almost every human being's life on earth in a positive way."
"But after we get through with that kind of celebration, we said, 'Well, they did make a billion dollars out of a publicly owned resource. Maybe the public should have been cut into it somehow,' " he said. "And most reasonable people say, 'Yeah, the public should have been.' "
Yellowstone discussed benefits-sharing with a handful of companies, but Diversa volunteered to enter an agreement, Varley said.
Diversa received the right to look for microbes, promising to share potential financial returns with the park. The company also agreed to help with the park's own research and to catalog park resources.
"Moneys that would be collected under these agreements would be put back into the documentation and understanding of these organisms," Soukup said. "I think that makes us better stewards of resources."
That doesn't ease concerns.
"What we're afraid of is officials being blinded by huge opportunity and huge pot of gold," Shaffer said.