As federal officials at Yellowstone scramble to reassure visitors that they won’t be prosecuted for taking a photo of Old Faithful, Wyoming legislators are struggling to reframe the “Trespassing to Collect Data” legislation as only intending to strengthen private property rights in the state. And while both may wish to see the law as being narrowly constructed, that’s just not the way it’s written, and how it will be enforced remains to be seen.
In truth, the bill probably wasn’t aimed at photo-snapping tourists. It was aimed at Western Watersheds Project, the conservation organization of which I am the executive director. Our staff and members are concerned about the impacts of livestock grazing on public lands, including the effects of cowpies on water quality in Wyoming’s streams and rivers. Wyoming residents should be concerned with this too, since water quality affects wildlife habitat and drinking waters; WWP has found E. coli in streams on some grazing allotments in excess of two hundred times the allowed levels.
Rather than deal with the data WWP presented to it about these Clean Water Act violations, the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality apparently called the ranchers instead who, with anti-WWP attorney Karen Budd-Falen, speculated that WWP must have trespassed to collect the water samples. They filed a civil trespass lawsuit against WWP in 2014 and that case is winding its way through state courts. The legislature took up the ranchers cause through the Trespassing to Collect Data bill, ensuring that any future accusations against WWP will be criminal rather than civil, and ultimately writing the bill in a way that criminalizes collecting data on federal public lands.
It isn’t just photos of Old Faithful that Wyomingites should want to protect from this overly broad and insidious law. Citizens should be concerned with the law’s impacts on watchdog environmental groups that are seeking to protect the public interest in clean water, clean air, healthy soils, and abundant wildlife on Wyoming’s beautiful public lands. Citizens should also be concerned that the state government is so deeply in the pockets of an extractive industry, a fraction of the state economy that is dwarfed by the contribution of the entertainment industry but which has far greater effects on the regional environment.
TRAVIS BRUNER, executive director, Western Watersheds Project