Wyoming Has Effectively Made Citizen Science a Crime - Pacific Standard

Wyoming Has Effectively Made Citizen Science a Crime

A sweeping new law could make data like photographs and soil samples inadmissible in court.
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The Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park. (Photo: Lorcel/Shutterstock)

The Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park. (Photo: Lorcel/Shutterstock)

The government of Wyoming has a strong message to would-be environmental activists: Look, but don’t touch.

Under a new statute signed into law by the Wyoming legislature, collecting data on state land—including private and public property like, say, the protected Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks—without the permission of a landowner is a crime punishable by up to a year in prison.

While this sounds like a simple rehashing of trespassing laws, the legislation also seems overly broad. “Data,” after all, could range from an innocent photograph to a soil sample. Even more worrying, “collection” is defined as gathering information “in any form from open land which is submitted or intended to be submitted to any agency of the state or federal government.” The legislation also states that information collected without authorization is inadmissible in any subsequent court proceedings. So, say you find a three-eyed fish, and intend to show it to local authorities as evidence of pollution. Under this new law, you won't be able to present that evidence until you receive an explicit form of permission.

This law isn’t about trespassing; it’s about transparency, and the government of Wyoming’s preference to avoid lawsuits from would-be environmental activists over how it treats public lands.

Does this mean you’ll be sent to prison for taking a photograph of Old Faithful? No, but the scope of the law takes on a sinister tone when considered in the context of its intent—to protect the state government from scrutiny over the contamination of protected streams with E. coli bacteria. University of Denver professor Justin Pidot writes at Slate that a small group of citizen scientists had previously identified concentrations of the bacteria in bodies of water across public lands that violate standards established by the Clean Water Act. The state government is sending a simple message to groups: If you want to point the finger at us for the degradation of public lands, you have to get our permission first.

This law isn’t about trespassing; it’s about transparency, and the government of Wyoming’s preference to avoid lawsuits from would-be environmental activists over how it treats public lands. "Rather than engaging in an honest public debate about the cause or extent of the problem," Pidot argues, "Wyoming prefers to pretend the problem doesn’t exist." Under the new law, the state threatens any upstanding citizen who could present evidence of environmental malfeasance with jail time.

While the law may have been crafted with the intention of shielding government agencies and, ostensibly, oil and gas interest groups that might be held accountable by environmentalists, it has the secondary effect of rendering “citizen” scientists effectively toothless.

“Science can and does happen outside of agency collaborations—and these kinds of citizen science projects theoretically can still happen under this law provided the data is going to academic or nonprofit scientists for analysis,” explains Amy Freitag at Southern Fried Science. “It also would matter less if the data collected can’t be used in court. Only when the data in question uncovers some other crime—like water quality violations—that the scientist should be concerned about being an outlaw.”

But this is a problem. Wyoming doesn’t exactly blow through tons of cash on environmental research every year, and the University of Wyoming doesn’t rank that high in terms of research expenditures. The new law doesn’t just shield the state from scrutiny; it renders average citizens, a crucial complement to regular research institutions, effectively impotent. This, in turn, severs the link “between citizen science and management applications, which is one of the strongest means of empowerment that participation in citizen science can provide,” as Freitag puts it.

Wyoming residents, not just environmental activists, deserve the right to hold powerful institutions accountable on all aspects of their lives. Preventing them from even presenting data is a denial of facts—and that, at its core, is the legislative equivalent of burying one’s head in the sand.

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