Wyoming acts to discourage citizen scientists

 

I am a longtime and enthusiastic citizen scientist. As part of various citizen-science projects, I’ve banded birds, chased tiger beetles, counted frogs, monitored archaeological sites, and documented the lifecycles of plants in my backyard. So I am particularly interested in Wyoming’s new Data Trespass Bill, passed by legislators this March. While some say the bill simply toughens existing no-trespassing laws, others charge that it will criminalize citizen science.

Specifically, the bill says that anyone who “enters onto open land for the purpose of collecting resource data” without the landowner’s permission can be fined and imprisoned for up to a year. More specifically, the term “collect” is defined as acquiring or preserving any information, including photographs, “which is submitted or intended to be submitted to any agency of the state or federal government.”

But what is “open land?” Is it public as well as private land? If I am hiking on state land and discover an illegal toxic dump, and if I then photograph that dump and give a copy of the image to an “agency of the state,” could I be charged under this law? Maybe. What if I am observing birds for the Audubon Christmas Bird Count, and Audubon passes on that information for a government report on climate change? Will I be fined $1,000 for seeing and describing a red-breasted nuthatch? Maybe.

The law is vague, badly worded and probably unconstitutional. Ultimately, the courts will decide. But what does seem clear is that Wyoming legislators are scared of data -- of facts. Environmentalists in Wyoming believe the bill is a response to the recent discovery by an environmental group of high levels of E. coli bacteria in the riparian areas of public land leased by ranchers. A group of Wyoming ranchers is now suing that group, the Western Watersheds Project, for allegedly taking water samples from their private land without permission. Western Watersheds says it took samples only from public land and public access roads.

I don’t know all the details. But as the environmental group says, the bigger issue should be the bacteria, which is likely caused by too many cows in creeks and streams.  E. coli is a serious public health issue, known to cause serious human illness and even death.

Tellingly, the Data Trespass Law specifies that data collected “illegally” are inadmissible as evidence in any court case. Not only that; the data will be removed from any agency’s databases and cannot be used “in determining any agency action.”

What does this have to do, really, with citizen science? In my opinion, a lot.

Citizen science is a partnership between scientists and non-scientists that has revolutionized how and what kind of research gets done. Over 6,000 Americans like me, for example, document climate change by monitoring the lifecycles of plants and animals for Nature’s Notebook, a national online program partly funded by the U.S. Geological Survey and National Park Service, where amateur and professional naturalists record their observations. Some 200,000 people track birds for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, their studies used by government agencies to determine habitat restoration. (As a matter of course, these citizen scientists seek permission from landowners. No one wants to run afoul of trespassing laws.)

Across North America, sampling the quality of waterways is also a common and important citizen science task. With the help of volunteers -- and sometimes government agencies as well -- scientists can now explore large-scale, continent-wide research questions.

For the citizen scientist, research questions can and do segue into environmental activism. Once you become more engaged with the world -- and fall more in love with the world -- you want to protect what you love. Citizen science is not just about democratizing science and making science more accessible to the general public. Citizen science is also about citizenship --citizens not of country but of place, citizens of a larger community, citizens of Earth itself. As citizens, we have certain responsibilities and certain rights. We expect our data to inform public policy. We expect our information to be welcomed, not censored, by our political leaders.

I am offended by the Wyoming Legislature’s attempt to bully people who care about the place and community in which they live. I am offended by their efforts to prevent information from being freely shared and used.

Trespassing on private land is not the issue. This law could have been worded to specify private land. It did once: An earlier version of the bill made it clear that only private land was involved, but the language was changed in the committee process. Now, this law is primarily concerned with making resource data inadmissible in court. This law is about the fear of facts. This law is about discouraging citizenship.

Sharman Apt Russell is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. She is the author of “Diary of a Citizen Scientist” and teaches writing at Western New Mexico University in Silver City, New Mexico, and at Antioch University in Los Angeles.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.