Criminalizing Geology

Yep, the New York Times notes that, among other odd state laws, that Wyoming has enacted a law that “makes it a crime to take photographs of or make written observations about a piece of land that belongs to someone else.” While the Times includes it in a collection of kind of humorous laws, Slate has a piece that outlines just how pernicious this bill really is (the assertion in that piece is that this is to discourage collection of any data that would be used to invoke the Clean Water Act).

You can read the law yourself.  Basically it outlaws, among other things, geologic mapping in the state as you cannot

…take a sample of material, acquire, gather, photograph or otherwise preserve information in any form from open land which is submitted or intended to be submitted to any agency of the state or federal government.

So watch out, all you summer field camp mappers.  Better be sure your maps are not submitted anywhere.  And woe unto any mapping theses being done in Wyoming, especially if your funding is from edumap or the state….

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12 responses to “Criminalizing Geology”

  1. Miksha says :

    Reblogged this on The Mountain Mystery and commented:
    A law in the state of Wyoming makes it illegal to sample, photograph, or even make written observations about a piece of land that belongs to someone else – if the information will be sent to any government agency, state or federal. Presumably, the 8-year-old in the back seat, randomly snapping pictures enroute to Yellowstone, is exempt. So who is this law targeting? It will stop anyone wanting to submit photos or samples of pollution dumped into streams or rivers which cross private property from accurately reporting such misdeeds. This should be a bone to mining companies, heavy supporters of politics in Dick Cheney’s home state.


    • natashaski says :

      This law is targeting extremist environmental groups that are trying to injure farming and ranching businesses by collecting data out of context and without the knowledge or permission of landowners.


      • Miksha says :

        Natashaski, perhaps “extremist environmental groups” (such as the Sierra Club? Ducks Unlimited?) are the target, but all researchers trying to curtail wanton pollution will be subject to these restrictions. This includes telescopic photographing of leaking tailings, even if the scientist never steps on private property (I agree that trespassing is not acceptable – but there are already laws against trespassing in Wyoming!) How many laws do citizens want which restrict their freedom to make reports? Restricting freedom of observing and reporting is the stuff of a Communist regime. It is the farmers and ranchers who have the most to gain from “extremist environmentalists” who might report damage to water supplies caused by mining activities. I know this first-hand from my own ranching/farming background.

        But I am especially curious about what you mean by “collecting data out of context”. Is there a good context in which pollutants can be dumped?


      • natashaski says :

        In my experience, the majority of people in Wyoming – no matter the industry – work hard to have “sustainability practices” in place – from environmental sustainability, to financial sustainability, to business sustainability.
        I’m not necessarily in support of this law (It does seem very REactive instead of PROactive to me, actually).
        The problem that I see is that so many things are twisted in presentation.
        Let me admit right now – I am completely out of my element on this data collection stuff. I do not know enough of the details to make a good argument (for or against the law). But I do know that there is more to the story than “a crime to take photographs of or make written observations about a piece of land that belongs to someone else.”

        Dumping pollutants isn’t ok! But what if that’s not actually what’s happening? What if something that looks like pollutants is actually re-spreading of nutrient-filled manure, or some other misinterpreted practice?

        cjonescu (see comments below) says it beautifully –
        “The best solution (which is presumably not the one we will get) would involve people not rushing to judgement and waiting to hear all the facts.”


  2. Paul Braterman says :

    Bone, boon? I think you can break this law with impunity, because enforcement would generate so much adverse publicity.


  3. cjonescu says :

    The obvious intent is to discourage and threaten more than actually prosecute. You can imagine some industry informing their security people to be rather vocal in informing anybody they view with suspicion about this law (or, if Slate is right, some rancher could fill that role). Obviously the current law is so heavy handed and such an overreach that it won’t last, but presumably those motivating it will seek something more focused as a replacement. The idea that a state so opposed to big government and in favor of personal freedom would enact a bill so opposed to personal rights to simply observe their surroundings is chilling and discouraging.


  4. natashaski says :

    First of all, Slate loves to sensationalize almost everything they write – a lot of opinion with little back-up. Almost every story they write should be taken with a grain of salt.
    But that’s beside the point.

    Let me play Devil’s advocate for a moment and give a little bit of reasoning behind this particular law.

    Agriculture is an important part of Wyoming lifestyle and economy. Generally speaking, the state of Wyoming and the people living in the state work very hard to work together between all of the land issues – natural resources, agriculture, energy development, and everything else.

    Recently, certain extremist groups have been trespassing on private property to access public lands. They have gathered data from both public and private lands to skew information and injure farm and ranch businesses.

    The intent of the law is to prevent those extremist groups from maliciously using data without a landowner’s knowledge and without the context of the landowner’s range management practices.

    How will this actual piece of legislation will affect future dealings and/or how it will actually be used in the context of any legal situation?
    I guess we will have to wait and see.


    • cjonescu says :

      Thanks for the perspective.
      Well, trespassing is already a crime, so part of the motivation seems poorly justified. And if gathering data out of context looks bad, then perhaps these operators should gather data in context. Look, if,say, illegally obtained footage of dumping a barrel of toxic waste into a stream is presented, and the only defense is “that video was illegally obtained”, most folks will say that the folks doing the dumping are the problem, not the guy collecting the video. (its the same old story politicians of all stripes seem to forget–if you don’t want to see it in the newspaper, don’t do it in the first place). This business of hiding–and getting the state government to help you hide what you are doing–feed conspiracy theories and inspire strong reactions that are themselves often excessive (the oil and gas industry’s banishment from New York is in no small part because of disingenuous denials of negative effects of gas development by industry over the years). Regardless of how appropriate the motivation, the law as written is tremendous overreach.


      • natashaski says :

        I agree with you – it all seems a little ridiculous. Personally, I don’t know if this law is just a bunch of over-zealous posturing or the beginning of an important discussion.
        The problem that some producers faced was that they had no idea that data was being gathered and then had no way to prepare a defense for themselves.
        Just because something LOOKS bad, doesn’t mean that it is – and that’s what I mean by context.

        The reason for my comment is to illustrate the perspective that may have ignited the legislation – farmers and ranchers often feel like they are constantly on the defense, no matter how sound their practices are.

        And how much truth there is in that… I guess it’s all a matter of where you’re standing?


  5. cjonescu says :

    Agreed, looking bad is not necessarily being bad (a point occasionally made elsewhere on this site), and your guess on the motivation behind the law seems likely. Defensive? I think just about everybody these days feels like their toes are being stepped on. In a society that judges things in a heartbeat, one can understand the desire to not be ambushed, and this certainly seems like the motivation here. The best solution (which is presumably not the one we will get) would involve people not rushing to judgement and waiting to hear all the facts. Hearing what people with different views are saying is a skill we need to nurture. We can dream on.


    • natashaski says :

      “The best solution (which is presumably not the one we will get) would involve people not rushing to judgement and waiting to hear all the facts. Hearing what people with different views are saying is a skill we need to nurture.”

      Yes – I agree!


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