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article imageOp-Ed: You can now go to jail for practicing citizen science in Wyoming

By Megan Hamilton     May 16, 2015 in Science
Yellowstone National Park - If you love to take photographs and participate in citizen science projects, they sure don't want you in Wyoming, and if you unknowingly take photos, perhaps for a photography contest for The National Weather Service, you may wind up in jail.
Now, Wyoming couldn't care less if photos of geysers or romping buffalo wind up in photo competitions, Slate reports.
Photos are, however, a type of data, and this new law makes it illegal to gather data about environmental conditions across most of the state should you plan to share that data with the state or federal government.
What's the reason for this silliness?
Wyoming doesn't want people to know that many streams are contaminated by E. coli bacteria, which can cause dangerous health problems and even death. One organization, the Western Watersheds Project has discovered this bacteria in numerous streams that cross federal land. The concentrations are heavy enough that they violate water quality standards established by the federal Clean Water Act.
Collecting water samples on the frozen Yellowstone River above Glendive.
Collecting water samples on the frozen Yellowstone River above Glendive.
But rather than acting on the problem or engaging in enlightening public debate, Wyoming wants to sweep it under the rug in a "if we don't talk about it, then it doesn't exist" sort of way. And this new law aids and abets this fantasy allowing the state to threaten anyone who should challenge this by producing data to a stint in jail.
The law was enacted after several ranchers sued an environmental group for trespassing on their land to procure water samples from streams contaminated with E. coli from cattle dung, Popular Science reports.
The group had collected the samples on public land. Under this new law, it would be illegal to do this without strict permission. Now, anyone caught collecting data (including photographs) on "open land" (meaning land outside of town or city lines) must have written or verbal permission to be there. This is a problem because the term "open land" is vague, and may encompass everything from state or federal parks to land that's privately owned.
Under this law, anyone caught collecting samples or taking photos with the intent of sharing them with government agencies can be charged with "Trespassing to unlawfully collect resource data" and "unlawful collection of resource data," meaning that anyone who takes a picture of a polluted waterway can be sentenced to as much as one year in prison and a fine of $5,000, ThinkProgress reports.
Known as the Data Trespass Bill, the law won't likely be used to penalize Yellowstone tourists taking souvenir photos, but it has broad-reaching ramifications for collecting environmental data in the state, Justin Pidot, an assistant professor at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, told Think Progress.
"People on the ground, who have been engaged in this kind of data collection in the past, now have to face the worry about being potentially prosecuted," he said. "The chilling effect on citizen participation is huge."
Other environmental groups, such as the Wyoming chapter of the Sierra Club, say that the bill's vague language will impede citizen science statewide.
"We are deeply concerned that this poorly written and overly vague bill will prevent concerned citizens and students from undertaking valuable research projects on public lands, out of fear of accidentally running afoul of the new law (the scope of which no one clearly understands) and being criminally and civilly prosecuted," Connie Wilbert, organizing representative for the Sierra Club's Wyoming chapter, told ThinkProgress. "There is no need for this new bill, and we can only conclude that it is an attempt by private landowners to scare people away from valid research efforts on public land."
One of the most troubling aspects of the law, Pidot says, is that it focuses on data collected to be shared with the government, and it's a focus that he calls "anomalous, bizarre, and radical." Under this statute, anyone who stumbles on an environmental disaster or a public health hazard would be breaking the law by reporting it to the authorities. Unless, of course, they have obtained specific permission from the landowner before collecting the data, ThinkProgress reports.
Cattle and herds of other farm animals are high on the list of methane emitters.
Cattle and herds of other farm animals are high on the list of methane emitters.
This law is less about trespassing and more about protecting powerful interests, like the Wyoming ranchers who largely supported the bill. Ranchers have been battling for years with citizen scientists working for the Western Watersheds Project over the data they have collected — and how they collected it.
The WWP collected a fairly robust number of samples and in so doing, found high levels of E. coli bacteria in streams on land that's owned by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and the project says this proves that ranchers are allowing their cattle to graze too close to streams.
The WWP argues that these waterways should be added to a list of impaired waters under the Clean Water Act, and this move could force tighter regulations on where ranchers can let their cattle graze.
So it should come as no surprise that in June 2014, 14 ranchers filed a lawsuit against Jonathan Ratner, WWP's project director for Wyoming. The ranchers alleged that the data Ratner collected was obtained by traversing private property to reach public lands. Under this new law, this would be illegal without permission from the ranchers that own the land, ThinkProgressreports.
"There's a real parallel between what this statute is doing and this effort on the part of the state and the ranchers to exclude this data that the Western Watersheds Project is collecting from the inclusion on the impaired water list," said Pidot, who is representing the WWP in a case unrelated to the statute. "The theory for most of the ranchers is, 'you were near my land once, so you must have trespassed.'"
In all likelihood, in some cases, where written permission is already required to access land, getting extra permission for collecting data might not be such a big deal. Amy Freitag, writing for Southern Fried Science notes that in some cases, trespassing may be the best way to garner information about environmental problems. It's unlikely, she writes, that cattle ranchers will allow someone onto their property to collect data that they may realize could be used to restrict their grazing rights. If a scientist finds illegal activity while trespassing, the means of discovery shouldn't take away from the fact that something illegal is happening.
"The offenses of the trespassing should certainly not negate the evidence of another crime," Freitag writes. "Two wrongs don't make a right."
Pidot thinks this bill is another example of western states trying to conceal information regarding agriculture and the environment behind legislation, ThinkProgress reports. Recently, two different laws have been passed--in Idaho and Utah, and these laws criminalize undercover investigations or whistle blowing regarding the agriculture industry, he notes.
"This is sort of a new tactic we're seeing, where state governments are trying to build legal rules that prevent people from uncovering information about favored industrial groups, " he said. "I think it's very concerning as a phenomenon.
Pidot says he believes the Data Trespass Bill violates the Constitution in several ways, ranging from infringing on First Amendment rights of free speech without special burden to subverting the ability to petition the government. It also interferes with the supremacy clause, he notes, by using state law to scupper the purpose of federal law — in this case, it does this by enforcing the federal Clean Water Act by preventing citizen data from being considered in the government.
He hopes that over time, part or all of the Data Trespass Bill will be found unconstitutional. For the time being, he worries that other states will also enact similar legislation.
"What do we, as a society, believe is the role of citizens in ensuring that truthful information about wrongful conduct is made available, to both the public and the government?" He asks. "In the absence of that information, the government has the luxury of pretending there aren't any problems."
It is truly sad that we now live in a time where some people must break laws in order to know if their water is safe, or if the environment is being harmed. How sad that states support the will of a few to the potential detriment of people and the environment.
While citizen science is a relatively new term, it's been with us for a long time. One of the oldest and most famous examples of citizen science in action is the National Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Count, National Geographic reports. The organization has sponsored the bird count since 1900, and it runs from December 14 through January 5 every year. A birder with plenty of experience leads a group (usually called a circle) of volunteers as they collect information about local bird populations. More than 2,000 circles operate across the U.S. and Canada, and their efforts help to inform bird conservation.
Another one, Frogwatch USA is the Association of Zoos and Aquariums leading citizen science program. In this program, groups and individuals learn about wetlands in their communities by reporting the mating calls of frogs and toads, National Geographic reports.
Then there's Project BudBurst, which is a network of people all across the U.S. who are monitoring the leafing, flowering, and fruiting of plants. It's a project that fosters collaboration among gardeners, scout troops, hikers, botanists, ecologists, government agencies, and educators in order to monitor climate change and its impacts on plants, National Geographic reports.
All across the country, there are scores of citizen science programs that benefit the environment, wildlife, and people. But what if more and more states adopt more Data Trespass Bills, and suddenly, no one can do Christmas Bird Counts where they live, or study frogs or local plants? What happens then?
What happens is that we lose knowledge and understanding of the complex natural systems that survive on this planet. What's worse is that this comes at a time when many of these systems are collapsing. Laws like the one in Wyoming benefit a scant few individuals but in the long run could cause much harm.
It's heinous, really.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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