Citizen scientists—members of the public that donate their time and talents to collect and analyze data on behalf of the government—are a valuable resource for government agencies limited in their ability to carry out scientific research due to technical or budgetary constraints. So when the Wyoming chapter of the nonprofit conservation organization Western Watersheds Project (WWP) collected water samples from streams crossing federal lands and found E. coli bacteria present at 200 times the legal limit defined by the Clean Water Act, the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) was able to use this data to subject these waterways to greater regulatory scrutiny.
The source of this hazardous contamination was ranchers letting their cows graze and defecate near these waterways. In 2014, 15 of these ranchers sued WPP, claiming the organization must have trespassed on their private lands to collect this data, despite WPP maintaining no wrongdoing. The suit is still ongoing, but rather than investigate how to reduce the amount of potentially life-threatening bacteria in the state’s waters, the Wyoming state legislature instead passed two statutes in 2015 (1, 2) that make it a crime for members of the public to collect “resource data”—data relating to land or land use, ranging from geology, to archeology, to air quality—if they intend to share the data with a government entity. Wyoming legislators passed these statutes ostensibly to strengthen private landowners’ protections against unlawful trespassing, but the wording of these laws actually prohibits the collection of resource data on any land, even if the land in question is public, which effectively criminalizes citizen science. Should a member of the public collect this data, which could entail something as innocuous as photographing the natural landscape, and share it with a government entity, the citizen could face up to one year in prison and a fine of up to $1,000.
Specifically, the statutes make it unlawful for a person to enter onto “open land” for the purpose of collecting resource data, which is defined as “…land outside the exterior boundaries of any incorporated city, town, subdivision… or development,” without explicit permission to collect specific data. The fact that this definition is broad enough to include public lands is no accident. An early draft of one of the statutes only prohibited such activities if a person “enters onto or crosses private open land,” but lawmakers later amended the bill to replace this with the broader language. Since the term “private open land” is used elsewhere in the final versions of the statutes, it is clear that Wyoming lawmakers acted deliberately to prohibit collection of resource data of any kind throughout the state.
If the state wants to shield polluters from regulatory scrutiny, then it should repeal or weaken state environmental laws, not criminalize data collection. By doing so, Wyoming’s state legislature has substantially limited the potential for beneficial and even life-saving applications of data. Under Wyoming’s new laws, even if a person were to observe a pressing hazard to public health, such as illegal hazardous waste dumping, the person legally could not collect and report evidence of this to a public authority. Ironically, prohibiting such activity could actually do more harm to ranchers than answering to environmental regulators ever could, as the data that citizen scientists collect offers economic and social benefits well beyond just spurring regulatory action. The federal government has repeatedly used data from citizen scientists to carry out projects that directly benefit ranchers, ranging from developing early warning systems for animal disease outbreaks to more accurately measuring soil moisture levels, which can have a substantial impact on agricultural productivity and guide efforts to prevent wildfires. The next time a disease ravages a herd of cows or a wildfire razes a pasture, ranchers should thank the Wyoming legislature for criminalizing the collection of data that could help prevent such disasters.
A version of this article first appeared to describe a nominee for the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation’s 2015 Luddite Awards, an award to recognize the year’s most egregious example of a government, organization, or individual stymieing the progress of technological innovation.
Image: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.