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Federal Court Just Shut Down Wyoming’s Efforts To Suppress Science In Public Lands

In a huge victory for the environment, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals this week ruled that data collection on public lands is protected free speech, striking down a Wyoming state law that created stiff civil and criminal penalties for “data trespass,” gathering data (or even taking photographs) on public land.

The conservative state effort to suppress science and free speech was a bold effort to shield the livestock industry from its violations of the Clean Water Act and other environmental laws on public lands.

The law specifically targeted Western Watersheds Project’s documentation of chronic fecal coliform contamination of public waterways by public land ranchers, The Hill reports.

It all started with a lawsuit organized by right-wing activist attorney Karen Budd-Falen, who wanted to find a way to penalize Western Watersheds Project’s Jonathan Ratner for “trespassing” while gathering water quality data on public lands and reporting violations to the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality.

It became obvious that there was no evidence of trespassing or actual harm to the private property and that the judge was not going to impose punitive damages.

While the trespassing lawsuit ended in failure and legal bills, the livestock industry, which controls the Wyoming legislature, simultaneously pushed for the creation of laws that would punish citizen watchdogs. In response, the legislature enacted a pair of new laws imposing civil and criminal penalties for resource data gathering and even photography on “open lands,” if private lands had been crossed without sufficient permissions.

According to the report, Wyoming has some of the most draconian public access laws in the nation. Almost half of the lands in Wyoming are federal public lands open to the public, but under state law the public doesn’t have the same rights of access to its lands as do private landowners.

Instead of being required to provide reasonable public access to publicly owned parcels, private landowners can —and often do— block access routes to public lands that cross their property, and in some cases even charge hunters and anglers extravagant “trespass fees” to access large blocks of public lands that lie behind their gates.

However, a new federal law establishing the public’s right of access to all public lands nationwide would settle the issue once and for all, in Wyoming and every other state where private interests hold exclusive privileges to parts of our public lands.

In the meantime, Western Watersheds Project continues to fight in court for the public’s right to use and enjoy public lands, and to collect data on public lands and waters.

“When state and local governments work to suppress science and shield polluting industries from accountability, we will work to expose these efforts. And we’ll keep on documenting violations of federal environmental standards until the offending industries clean up their acts,” the group said in a statement.

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