Some say a new Wyoming law is meant to conceal the fact that many of its streams are contaminated with harmful bacteria. Others claim its purpose is to deter trespassers. ©Henry H. Holdsworth

Citizen science has become an important tool for scientific research. Now, as funds for federal agencies and state natural resources departments around the country shrink, using ordinary folks to gather and record wildlife and environmental observations stretch limited research dollars by getting reams of data for free. NASA relies on amateur astronomers for asteroid observations. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) uses volunteers to document the aftermath of earthquakes. Citizen science initiatives such as the USGS’s North American Breeding Bird Survey and Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird provide us with the best information we have on avian populations. And Monarch, a nonprofit research program that focuses on the monarch butterfly and its migration, and REEF, the world’s largest marine-sightings database, have also used the results of citizen science projects in producing scientific papers.

But a recent Wyoming law makes it a crime to gather data or take photographs about the condition of the environment on “open land” (land outside the exterior boundaries of any incorporated city, town or subdivision) if you plan to share that data with the state or federal government—even if it is for something as innocuous as a photo contest for the National Park Service.

Some say the law is merely meant to keep trespassers off rural, private land. Others claim the state wants to hide the fact that many of its streams are contaminated with E. coli bacteria, strains of which can cause serious health problems or even death.

The nonprofit Monarch depends on citizen scientists. ©Astrid Frisch

Is this a political move to push environmental issues even further from our minds?

Ag gag?

Government officials often lack the financial resources—and sometimes the political fortitude—to address every environmental problem that comes to their attention. That’s why the Clean Water Act and other federal environmental laws were set up, authorizing citizens to bring lawsuits against polluting agencies. Citizen scientists have played a large part in such actions, gathering information in order to establish better regulations.

While the new Wyoming law is similar to “ag gag” statutes in other states, such as Idaho and Utah, that make it illegal to secretly take photos or videos on farms without explicit permission, the new Wyoming statute makes a citizen scientist who volunteers to gather data that monitors our environment into a lawbreaker. Wyoming is the first state to enact a law so broad that the act of even taking a picture on public land may be criminal. The regulation also requires any Wyoming state agencies currently possessing any now-illegally collected data to destroy it immediately.

According to an article published in Slate and written by Justin Pidot, assistant professor at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, the source of E. coli is cows that spend too much time in and next to streams. But acknowledging that could result in laws requiring ranchers to better manage their herds. In portions of the West, ranchers often own large areas of grasslands and forests that are crossed by public roads. Many times, those holdings are intermingled with federal lands supervised by the U.S. Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management but leased to ranchers for grazing. Environmental organizations, such as the Western Watersheds Project, have found bacteria in a number of streams crossing federal land in concentrations that violate water quality standards under the Clean Water Act. But, says Professor Pidot, since the ranching community in Wyoming wields considerable political power, state legislators would rather stop the flow of information than address the environmental problem.

REEF, a marine-sightings database, uses results from citizen science projects in scientific papers. ©Deborah Doyle

Opponents of the law say it’s clear it is aimed at restricting whistle-blowers and that it violates the U.S. Constitution on several counts: 1) it interferes with the citizen right to petition the government, which is protected by the First Amendment; 2) it violates the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech because it singles out speech about natural resources for burdensome regulation; 3) it makes it a crime to engage in many forms of artistic and expressive activities; and 4) it infringes the Supremacy Clause because it interferes with federal environmental statutes by making it impossible for citizens to collect the information necessary to bring a lawsuit.

Or protection from unwelcome visitors?

Those who support the Wyoming law counter that it only requires that scientists (citizen or otherwise) acquire written or verbal permission from landowners when collecting data on their land. In essence, they say, the law simply rehashes a fairly common definition of trespassing. And according to an article in The Week, Wyoming State Senator Larry Hicks said the purpose of the ban is solely to prevent environmentalists from interfering with important “economic activity.”

This law comes on the heels of state mandates to stop citizens who work for state governments from talking about climate change. Now, it would seem, some states want to ban not only talk about the environment but the physical act of gathering data itself: citizen science.

The Wyoming regulation makes it unlawful to take an environmental photograph if you plan to share it with the state or federal government—even if it’s for a National Park Service photo contest. ©Henry H. Holdsworth

Do you think that the purpose of the new Wyoming statute is to keep citizens from discovering federal and state environmental law infractions? Or is it merely meant to protect ranchers and farmers by strengthening trespassing regulations?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,