A coalition of groups is pushing back against Wyoming’s new laws that criminalize collecting resource data on public land without permission.
A lawsuit filed Sept. 29 in U.S. District Court for the District of Wyoming argues that two Wyoming statutes prevent “private citizens and citizen groups from discovering harmful practices and conditions on federal, state, and private property, and communicating evidence of those practices to appropriate federal and state authorities.”
“Read literally,” the lawsuit reads, “Wyoming Statute 6-3-414 makes a criminal out of a child who walks onto her neighbor’s porch to take a photo of a hawk for use in a public school photo competition — unless the child first obtains her neighbor’s express permission to do so.
“Jail time and civil liability could be imposed under the statutes on a rural traveler who hears a cry for help, unwittingly enters private land when venturing off road without express permission to make observation, discovers an escalating wildfire, drops a ‘pin’ on her GPS unit to record the location of the fire, and then provides the information to the fire department,” the plaintiffs wrote.
Laramie attorney Reed Zars filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Western Watersheds Project, the National Press Photographers Association, the Natural Resources Defense Council, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the Center for Food Safety.
The legal action follows a fall 2014 lawsuit that went the other direction. A coalition of ranchers sued Western Watersheds Project staffer Jonathan Ratner for allegedly trespassing onto private lands in order to access public lands to acquire water quality samples in areas leased for livestock grazing.
Water quality data submitted by Ratner to the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality have since been thrown out, and streams that his data indicated have too much E. coli bacteria have been taken off Wyoming’s “impaired” list.
According to the lawsuit, Wyoming’s data collection laws have deterred Western Watersheds from continuing its monitoring efforts. The statutes, Senate Files 12 and 80, took effect July 1, and make data collection without permission both a criminal and civil offense.
“Since the Data Censorship Statutes went into effect ... Western Watersheds has had to cease its water quality data collection in many locations within Wyoming,” the complaint reads, “including locations within Fremont, Lincoln, and Sublette counties, for fear of criminal prosecution and civil liability.”
In a statement, the coalition of groups said Wyoming’s data collection laws were a “direct response” to Ratner’s water quality data collection.
“But those citizen science efforts are not unique to the region, and other conservation organizations undertake scientific studies in the region that would be similarly barred,” the groups said.
Travis Bruner, executive director of Western Watersheds, said the data collection statutes were a result of the agricultural industry looking for a way to silence its critics and that Wyoming lawmakers went along with it.
“It’s a shame that Wyoming’s government cares less about upholding the rights of all of its citizens to clean water and clean air and more about the livestock sector’s ‘right’ to secretly pollute and impair our natural resources,” Bruner said in a statement.
When contacted by The Associated Press, Wyoming attorneys declined comment on the lawsuit.