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If You're in Wyoming, Don't Take Pictures of Cattle Ranches

Environmentalists worry a new law could prevent 'citizen science' efforts aimed at collecting soil and water samples, or even taking photos, on public lands leased to ranchers.
May 18, 2015, 8:15pm
Photo by Philip and Karen Smith/Getty

A new bill in Wyoming has environmentalists afraid they could face jail time for collecting a water or soil sample or taking a photo, not just from privately owned land but even on lands open to the public.

Under the legislation, known as the Data Trespassing Bill, a person can be arrested for collecting "resource data," which includes pictures and soil and water samples, on private land without prior permission. But the bill also suggests gathering information on "open land" — that is, any public land outside a city or town that might be leased by ranchers, for example.

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Critics told VICE News the bill could quash scientific research done by laypeople, often called citizen science, and serves to hide environmentally harmful practices, much like "ag-gag" laws in many states prevent whistleblowers from exposing hazardous work conditions, animal abuse, or possible food contamination within factory farms and slaughterhouses.

"This is an effort to make it illegal for citizens to gather truthful information about all the people using natural resources," Wyoming attorney Justin Pidot told VICE News. "It has a significant chilling effect on citizens who want to gather information about public land."

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Under the law, a person could spend up to one year in jail and face a $1,000 fine if he "enters onto open land for the purpose of collecting resource data" without a license or permission. Resource data is information "related to land or land use," such as "agriculture, minerals, geology, history, cultural artifacts, archeology, air, water, soil, conservation, habitat, vegetation,"  the bill says.

The law was passed in March and prompted Pidot to write an editorial about it in Slate.

"This serves a variety of political forces in Wyoming," Pidot told VICE News. "It serves the ranching community by preventing information about the environmental harm of their practices from being gathered — and it serves the mining industry in that same way."

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The bill comes on the heals of a lawsuit by a group of cattle ranchers, who claim the environmental group Western Watershed Project (WWP) trespassed on privately owned land while collecting water samples. The project's test results found elevated levels of E. coli in streams, which the group attributes to cattle. The lawsuit is ongoing.

Connie Wilbert of Wyoming's Sierra Club told VICE News the bill's wording was vague and could result in a person inadvertently breaking the law. She speculated that even a student conducting field research could be penalized under the new regulations.

"Our fear is that it could be interpreted quite broadly and have severe ramifications that inhibit citizens from doing citizen science on public land," Wilbert told VICE News. "We're really concerned. We don't believe there is a strong legitimate need for this bill — Wyoming already has bills that prohibit trespassing on private property."

But agricultural representatives and elected officials told VICE News the law was the only way to preserve fundamental privacy rights, and environmentalists like Pidot were exaggerating its scope.

Republican state representative Tyler Lindholm told VICE News that people would have no problem if they photographed or took samples on public land.

"The argument that this protects people who are doing something environmentally degrading is a farce," Lindholm told VICE News. He added that, as a rancher, he feels "personally concerned" that environmentalists could survey his property.

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A spokesman for Wyoming Governor Matt Mead told VICE News Pidot, who represents WWP pro bono in an unrelated suit, used "inflammatory rhetoric" in his article and had misinterpreted the law. The spokesman clarified that a person could only be arrested if he trespassed on private land to reach the public land.

"In order for a person to run afoul of this law, that person must have trespassed on private property," the spokesman, Seth Waggener, told VICE News. "Trespass is as old as the common law from which it stems, and this statute ensures against it."

Rancher Jim Magagna, Executive Vice President of Wyoming's Stock Growers Association, praised the law and said it was critical for fending off groups like WWP.

"We have a Department of Environmental Quality in our state and they have the authority to come on land and test it," Magagna, whose group is a party in the lawsuit against WWP, told VICE News. "We're not preventing that data from being collected — we're saying a third party doesn't have permission."

And Ken Hamilton of the Western Farm Bureau echoed Magagna's stance that the bill served to protect landowners.

"We've had reports of people collecting data for no reason and the landowner doesn't even know they're out there until this data shows up," Hamilton told VICE News.

Related: The FBI continues to snoop on environmentalists

Will Potter, an investigative journalist who has written extensively on government attempts to clamp down on environmentalists, told VICE News the Wyoming bill had the potential to be enforced as broadly as Pidot and Wilbert fear because the wording gave room for a myriad of interpretations.

"The answer to both conflicting sides is, yes, the environmentalists have every reason to be concerned, and the state is also somewhat true," Potter told VICE News. He said the Wyoming law followed a trend of states shielding the agriculture sector against scrutiny of their environmental impact.

"Over and over again I've seen promises by politicians that legislation is not going to be used in X, Y, or Z way but it doesn't play out that way," Potter warned. "Once you put laws like this on the books they can be pushed to their limits."

Follow Meredith Hoffman on Twitter: @MerHoffman