Friday, May 29, 2015

Institutional disrespect for law

On March 10, 2015, the Wyoming state legislature passed a "data trespass bill". The law is designed to limit collection of data of pollution or health hazards on land within the state.[1] The law makes it illegal to trespass without an owner's permission onto any land outside city boundaries to obtain evidence such as photographs or soil samples and then to submit the data to any state or federal agency.  Penalty for violation of the law is a fine up to $5,000 and up to 1 year in jail. This applies to private land and federal lands such as national parks or land managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The point of the law is to discourage and limit collection of data of pollution or health hazards so that economic interests, primarily cattle ranchers, can operate without public knowledge of their activities, regardless of the legality of those activities.

The law comes after years of of disputes over collected data between Wyoming ranchers and citizen scientists who were working for the Western Watersheds Project (WWP). Water sampling data the WWP obtained found high levels of E. coli bacteria in streams on land owned by the BLM. The WWP asserts their data proves that ranchers allow their cattle to graze too close to streams and, if true, that could lead to stricter regulation of the polluted waterways. Those waterways are on public, federal land. they are public lands.

Under the circumstances, pressing for and passing this law by supporters including most Wyoming ranchers, the state legislature and the governor mocks the rule of law. First, the law is undeniably designed to discourage collection of evidence of illegal activity. If there was no such activity, there would be no need for such a law. Second, if this law is unconstitutional[2] the ranchers who use public BLM lands to graze their cattle are operating for their own economic benefit without regard to the public's right to access federal lands to engage in legal activities, including collecting evidence of pollution or health hazards.

The disrespect that supporters of this law show toward the rule of law is yet another example of the weakness of the rule of law in America and the disrespect that economic interests routinely show toward any law that impairs their ability to make money, regardless of impacts on the public interest. Given the paltry grazing fees the government collects[3], the arrogance the backers of this law have for both the public and the law is astounding. Not only do taxpayers subsidize scofflaw rancher operations by charging unreasonably low grazing fees, they have to put up with their polluting activities and the utter contempt these welfare recipients show toward the public and the rule of law. This is what can and often does happen when no one defends the public interest.

1. Dissident Politics (DP) previously commented on efforts to limit collection of data or information as one of the ways the two-party system deceives the public. Based on DP's understanding of the situation, this appears to primarily be a practice of business entities or conservatives. The Law discussed here is similar to laws being passed in other states to limit public knowledge of various business practices such as making undercover videos. The point of such laws is presumably to aid businesses in their conduct of illegal and/or unpopular activities or to vindicate conservative ideals. Backers of such laws cite reasons such as protecting privacy or limiting fraud.
2. The law arguably is unconstitutional because it interferes with federal law under the Clean Water Act and/or EPA regulations. The Wyoming law arguably violates the Supremacy Clause and possibly other parts of the Constitution such as the First Amendment right to free speech.
3. The Federal grazing fee for 2013 and 2014 was $1.35 per “animal unit month” (AUM) for public lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management.  An AUM is defined as the amount of forage needed by an “animal unit” grazing for one month. The quantity of forage needed is based on the cow's metabolic weight, and the animal unit is defined as one mature 1,000 pound cow and her suckling calf.

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