Lander, WY – Yesterday, Western Watersheds Project asked a Wyoming judge to dismiss a retaliatory lawsuit aimed at hiding poor water quality on public lands. The conservation organization is defending itself against a legal action brought last summer by the Wyoming livestock industry to shut down citizen oversight of environmental impacts on public land.

“WWP is being unfairly targeted with allegations of trespass on private land because of what it has documented on public land and in public water: gross violations of standards meant to protect Wyoming’s citizens from drinking cow manure,” said Travis Bruner, executive director of Western Watersheds Project. “The ranchers are alleging harms from WWP ‘s data collecting going back a decade and without any evidence of trespass except their speculation about how WWP accessed its sample sites.”

The conservation organization was represented in court by Justin Pidot from University of Denver College of Law who is working pro bono to defend the public’s right to use federal easements to access public lands, to ensure citizen oversight of water quality and to participate in industry regulation. Pidot summed up the permittees’ claims to the judge in the following manner: “We saw you once near our land, so you must have trespassed.”

“It’s clear that the ranchers’ lawsuit seeks to punish WWP not for any alleged trespass, but for what the group has documented through its water data collection,” said Bruner. “This vindictive act is an abuse of the legal process and the court should toss the case out and send a message to industry that public advocacy for public health is welcomed in Wyoming.”

Contact:
Justin Pidot, University of Denver (650) 269-2240
Travis Bruner, Western Watersheds Project (208) 788-2290

 
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About The Author

Ralph Maughan

Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University with specialties in natural resource politics, public opinion, interest groups, political parties, voting and elections. Aside from academic publications, he is author or co-author of three hiking/backpacking guides.

11 Responses to Conservation Group Seeks Dismissal of Frivolous Lawsuit in Wyoming

  1. avatar vickif says:

    I hope this results in a message well sent to polluters.

  2. avatar Ralph Maughan says:

    This lawsuit and the backing the state of Wyoming gave it by passing a law that made collection of data by private citizens a crime, is, I think, something that truly must be slapped down hard by the courts.

    Everything in the outdoors is potentially data. To criminalize collecting it is to absolutely silence people if they choose to enforce it, and selective enforcement of it would be nothing more than complete politicization of law enforcement.

  3. avatar Nancy says:

    A good site to look around in, just pick a state. Would appear the water quality in most western states is impaired due to agriculture or mining.

    http://www.epa.gov/waters/ir/

  4. avatar Gary Humbard says:

    I sure hope members of WWP didn’t trespass on private land to collect water samples on public land. If they did, it would send a message that the organization lacks credibility.

    Hopefully the judge will find no evidence of trespass and dismiss the lawsuit.

    • avatar Ralph Maughan says:

      Gary Humbard,

      In Wyoming, landowners are presumed to give permission to the public to use roads crossing their property.

      This actually helps landowners, lifting the burden for them to constantly monitor each square foot of their land to prevent prescriptive easements.

      Now landowners might have to spend time and money to look for people that the law has unthinkingly turned into trespassers. Otherwise their roads might get claimed as a public right-of-way.

  5. avatar Cody Coyote says:

    I ” engaged” a trio of local Cody legislators on a call-in radio show yesterday about why they summarily voted for SF12, the Wyoming Data Trespass Law this past session.

    One of the state reps- whose day job is a lawyer and day to day prosecutor for the Park County Attorney’s office – stated the data trespass bill was just ” trespass on steroids” and said flatly that there would likely be no prosecutions resulting from it. Wrong, and wrong. and two wrongs do not make a right, ever.

    I have pointedly asked one simple question about the urgent need for the Wyoming Data trespass law. to wit: ” How many instances came to light of actual trespass onto private property to obtain environmental samples or other data were you aware of ? ” What precipitated this law , in actuality.

    There are vague claims of trespass occurring in northeast Wyoming around oil, coal, and gas developments. There are unsubstatntiated claims of water samples being taken from discharges on leased oil and gas fields in central Wyoming. All of these together amount to a handful at best—with the exception of the piling on of Jonathan Ratner of WWP . Until someone proves otherwise, I’m going with Ratner being innocent till proven guilty of trespass to collect samples downstream of cow pastures. Where is the actual evidence of that ? None to date. Yet Ratner incurred the ire of the entire Wyoming legislature. So as Ralph pointed out elsewhere, he must have been doing something right.

    What SF12 Data trespass does is throw out the data baby with the trespass bathwater…it criminalizes/nullifies, disallows the data if it was alleged to have been obtained during trespass. The law uses the term ” expungement”. EXCEPT these are two separate legal issues…trespass, and the subsequent expungement.

    Wyoming’s trespass laws were already sufficient. They require notification by signage or verbally of a No Trespass posting before any claim of trespass can be made. In the absence of notification , the alleged simple trespasser pretty much gets a pass the first time. Malicious trespass is another thing altogether, but that is held to a higher standard of review. There was no need to amplify Wyoming’s existing trespass laws, to put them on steroids.

    The case against Ratner is all about the data itself. Similarly, SF12 is all about the potential of data. The Stockgrowers fear data, especially when it catches them with their blue jeans down around their ankles. So the Legislators at the Stockgrowers behest ginned up a broad law with vague language that criminalizes data. The legal travesty of SF12 is its absurd notion at it applies to all ‘open land’ in Wyoming, then for the purposes of this law defines open land as ALL LAND outside City limits. All land outside municipal boundaries—whether private or public.

    THAT is what needs to be used to strike down this ridiculous law…the definition of open land for the purposes of sandboxing the collection of data.

    The data speaks for itself. But SF12 is a wretched decree by fiat courtesy of the Wyoming Stockgrowers, with approval from other resource industries who might make heavyhanded use of such a vague heinous law. It is more like to being Ag Gag on steroids. It needs to be challenged.

    Two final points: there have been no prosecutions in Idaho under their version of data trespass since it was enacted early last year. The legislator I was bantering with about SF12 on the radio show pointed out that the Judiciary committee he sits on that passed SF12 to the floor did not hear a single word of testimony against it… so I have to ask , did Western Watersheds miss an opportunity to air it out before the Wyoming legislature? Sounds like it.
    —–
    For the record, I made written comments criticizing the bill to my legislators before and during deliberations of SF12.

    • avatar Ralph Maughan says:

      Cody Coyote,

      You are right when you say “The case against Ratner is all about the data itself. Similarly, SF12 is all about the potential of data. The Stockgrowers fear data, especially when it catches them with their blue jeans down around their ankles.”

      It is unlikely that this law would find any use except against Ratner collecting data, and, of course, Western Watersheds as a whole or other conservation organizations doing likewise. No tourist in Yellowstone Park will ever be charged.

      They could, however, use this to keep Western Watersheds (WWP) out of Wyoming. They would like that. They can also hope it will cost WWP a lot of money and time to defend itself even though the state would likely lose. The state has nearly unlimited resources, their taxpayers, to draw upon.

      Some Wyoming interests might also want to put fear into other kinds of data gathering given that these interests might have an anti-intellectual orientation. There would be many unanticipated side effects to continuing this, however. I doubt they have given much thought to these.

      This action impresses me as one big middle finger to WWP, saying “look at how powerful we are.” “We can pass a law against you.” “Now go away.”

      You are correct that this is like Idaho’s ag gag law which has never been used and which looks like the federal judge does not like (given his recent hearing on it).

      It too was passed in angry heat . . . “Yes the dairy was guilty and we are outraged that anyone dared to look at them . . . so there will be no more of this anywhere in Idaho”

      An interesting question is why does agriculture, or more specifically livestock operations, overreact so. They treat what other interests would see as irritants like ISIS coming to town and beheading a dozen people.

    • avatar MAD says:

      If you take a look at the Defendants motion to dismiss and supporting Memo I think there is a strategical error in using Argument #1(documents found at this link https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B1T2j7JW1SeoVHRiMW1tbzVtdzQ/view?pli=1).

      While it sounds great that the Defendants are correctly identifying that the Plaintiffs “fail to provide any factual context for their allegations of trespass, including the nature, timing, location and duration of any invasion of the Plaintiff’s interest in the exclusive possession of land”, there is a problem. This argument is diametrically opposite to the following arguments:
      4) Defendants obtained prescriptive easements – similar to adverse possession – by hostile or adverse use, open and with knowledge of the landowner, continuous and uninterrupted for 10 years

      5) Defendant’s use is allowed by existing easements – although they should have pulled the deeds for every parcel of land and checked this instead of looking at just one and saying, “Other easements may also exist.”

      7) allowed by Wyoming statute – Right of Way

      8) argument of superior right of “Public Necessity”

      9) entry was privileged to further Federal & State policies to protect human health & the environment

      10) the Clean Water Act preempts State trespass law

      11) there is a recognized right of public access to public waters

      12) equitable estoppel since there was no formal notification made to the Defendants prohibiting passage

      Since I think the above-listed arguments, in addition to #2, 3 & 6, are very strong, I think it was a mistake to add the first argument. It’s a bit foolish to first argue that there’s no evidence of trespass, but then claiming that it has been done for at least 10 years, out in the open, with the knowledge of the owners. Similarly, the other arguments lend themselves to providing justifications for the passage on private property.

      Just my thoughts…

  6. avatar skyrim says:

    “did Western Watersheds miss an opportunity to air it out before the Wyoming legislature? Sounds like it”.
    Fair question, but I would guess if the debate began after the supposed infraction, counsel may have suggested to Defendant Ratner and WWP to remain silent on the matter. Sometimes open discussion has a way of biting you in the butt later on down the road.
    Also, it would not be unheard of to consider that such discussion was not welcomed by Wyoming, and somehow the phone calls never got returned.
    Thanks for your effort CC.

  7. avatar Ed Loosli says:

    ABC News: “How Taking a Photograph of Old Faithful This Summer Could Land You in Jail” [This is now national news]

    http://news.yahoo.com/taking-photograph-old-faithful-summer-could-land-jail-213004152–abc-news-topstories.html

    “The idea that people would use common law to destroy an organization that is going out into public lands and revealing legal problems is deeply troubling to me,” Justin Pidot, an environmental law professor at the University of Denver and a lawyer representing the Western Watersheds Proect on a pro-bono basis… Information about the environment is vital both to the government and the public,” Pidot told ABC News.

  8. avatar Barb Rupers says:

    There is an in depth article on this issue written by Gregory Nickerson for Wyofile at:
    http://www.wyofile.com/data-trespassing-bill-is-aimed-at-public-lands-grazing-battle/

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‎"At some point we must draw a line across the ground of our home and our being, drive a spear into the land and say to the bulldozers, earthmovers, government and corporations, “thus far and no further.” If we do not, we shall later feel, instead of pride, the regret of Thoreau, that good but overly-bookish man, who wrote, near the end of his life, “If I repent of anything it is likely to be my good behaviour."

~ Edward Abbey

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