Wyoming has effectively outlawed citizen science.
A new law enacted recently by the state of Wyoming forbids members of the public from collecting resource data on any open land. “Collect” meaning preserve in any way; it implies photograph. But why?
Wyoming is attempting to hide the fact that many of its waterways are contaminated with E. coli bacteria in dangerously high levels, which in certain cases can be deadly. The state government already knows why: it is due to cattle farming too close to water sources. However, cattle ranchers hold a lot of political sway in the state, and not wishing to put extra effort into maintaining the environment at their expense, are key player in the enactment of this law.
The Clean Water Act exists so that citizens can take action on environmental issues when politicians find themselves unable or unwilling. It authorises citizens to take legal action against polluters. Hence, citizen scientists play an integral part in looking after the US landscape, by taking photos and gathering information to use in these lawsuits. But now that’s illegal.
Laws like this already exist in Utah and Idaho, and are currently being contested in federal courts. The law in Wyoming, however, is the widest reaching so far as it encompasses “data collected” on public land. In addition, the law is incredibly unconstitutional, restricting citizens from rights of free speech, the right to petition the government and interfering with the ability to bring about lawsuits.
Justin Pidot, assistant professor at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, represents Western Watersheds Project, who have carried out much of the research into the contaminated waterways in Wyoming. He wrote the original article for Slate. He described this situation in its clearest, but worst light: “in other words, if you discover an environmental disaster in Wyoming, even one that poses an imminent threat to public health, you’re obliged, according to this law, to keep it to yourself.”
Image shared by Albert de Bruijn under a Creative Commons license.