- Associated Press - Saturday, May 16, 2015

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - A new state law regulating those who collect resource data on open land has raised concerns from researchers and environmental activists.

The new law easily passed during this year’s legislative session and became effective immediately when Gov. Matt Mead signed it.

The law makes it a misdemeanor crime to enter open land with the intent of collecting resource data, including photographs or soil, water and air samples, without statutory, contractual or legal authorization or permission from the owner.

In addition, it creates a crime of “unlawfully collecting resource data” if a person enters private land and collects the data without authorization or permission.

Violators could face up to a year in prison and a fine of up to $1,000. Unlawfully collected data also would not be admissible in any civil, criminal or administrative proceeding.

Lawmakers and ranching and farming groups say this is intended to strengthen personal property rights, the Wyoming Tribune Eagle reported (https://bit.ly/1PNakT5).

“In a nutshell, if you are not trespassing already, this does not affect you,” said Brett Moline, a lobbyist for the Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation, which was one of the groups that pushed for the law. “The big thing is if you need to get on private land, stop and ask permission first.”

But some argue that the broadness of the law creates a more nefarious policy change.

“I think if you read the law on its face, it applies to both private and public lands,” said Justin Pidot, an assistant professor at the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law.

“And it makes it a crime to go out on public land and collect data on natural resources and the environment. This is a concern because the relationship between citizen scientists and the government is special and deserves constitutional protections,” Pidot said.

Pidot, who also has represented the Western Watershed Project in pro bono cases, said he views the law as a way to keep scientists from raising environmental issues in the state.

For example, he said the law makes it harder to determine if E. coli is present in streams that run across private lands, which is a finding that many landowners want to avoid because it could prompt tougher regulations.

“It’s the sort of law where states want to enact a law to hide a problem instead of dealing with it,” Pidot said.

He said his interpretation of the law is that it would even apply to federal lands within Wyoming. This includes Yellowstone National Park, where he argued someone theoretically could be punished for just taking a picture of a geyser.

But state officials say this is an extreme claim and a misreading of the law.

Jason Crowder, an assistant director with the Wyoming Office of State Lands and Investments, said the law wouldn’t apply to federal lands, such as Yellowstone, since federal laws, instead of state ones, hold supremacy there.

But Crowder said it would apply to the trust lands the state manages. He said there already are regulations concerning access to those properties, so he agreed with Moline’s assessment that someone would only be breaking the new law if they were already trespassing.

Crowder couldn’t say whether there would be strict enforcement of the law, except for saying that “it would largely be a private land issue.”

Chris Merrill, an associate director with the Wyoming Outdoor Council, said he also is concerned someone who gets lost could be guilty of violating the new law if they accidently find themselves on private property.

“We are worried about honest mistakes,” he said.

Merrill also contends the law wasn’t needed because the state already had trespassing laws on the books.

But Moline argued those weren’t tough enough until now.

“Previously, the burden was on the landowner to prove they haven’t given notice that (it is trespassing),” he said. “So what this bill does is it requires the people collecting data to know where they are … and with technology available, it is quite easy.”

But this isn’t the first time the new law has caused confusion or controversy.

Earlier this year, animal rights advocates argued the legislation also could serve as an “ag-gag” measure, which would prevent animal rights advocates, journalists and others from documenting abuse on the state’s farms, ranches and food processing facilities.

State officials and supporters say this was not the intent of the law.

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Information from: Wyoming Tribune Eagle, https://www.wyomingnews.com

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