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Your Yellowstone Park Selfies May Be Illegal (Thanks to E. Coli)

Wyoming lawmakers pass far-reaching legislation in an effort obscure a potential health hazard.

Submit a picture like this to a Parks Service photo contest, and you could be looking at a year in the hoosegow. Image by Daniel Mayer via Wikimedia Commons

Submitting pictures of your camping trip at Yellowstone National Park to any photo contest sponsored by a government agency is now a crime punishable by up to a year in prison and a $1,000 fine. As ridiculous as this might sound, according to a Wyoming statute signed into law this spring, collection of data—a designation that includes photographs and video—on “open land” with the intent to submit it to “any agency of the state or federal government” is now illegal. According to a recent article in Slate by law professor Justin Pidot,


Wyoming doesn’t, of course, care about pictures of geysers or photo competitions. But photos are a type of data, and the new law makes it a crime to gather data about the condition of the environment across most of the state if you plan to share that data with the state or federal government. The reason? The state wants to conceal the fact that many of its streams are contaminated by E. coli bacteria, strains of which can cause serious health problems, even death.

After an eco-group called the Western Watersheds Project (WWP) found elevated levels of bacteria in streams and rivers that pass through Wyoming’s public lands, state lawmakers leapt into action. No, not to protect the people and wildlife that might be negatively impacted by the contamination; instead they chose to step in on behalf of the industrial ranching businesses whose cattle are causing these unsafe conditions.

Heavy grazing around waterways is a well-known source of high waterborne E. coli levels, but about three-quarters of the state’s annual $1 billion agricultural economy comes from cattle ranching, making it something of a sacred cow (sorry) to local industry. In order to avoid regulations that might be costly or burdensome to ranchers, Wyoming’s lawmakers decided they’d rather just not know, making it a crime to collect pollution data throughout a broad swath of the state.

The Grand Prismatic Spring at Yellowstone. They say a picture is worth a thousand...dollar fine.

The Clean Water Act, a federal law, empowers citizens (like those from the WWP) to gather data and samples in order to bring suit against bad environmental actors. So, while ranch owners and their local political cronies were powerless to stop feds from enforcing safety measures, they could at least make it a crime to procure the evidence necessary to make a case under the Act.

Per a Monday article from ABC News, backers of the new anti-data-gathering law claim it was enacted to prevent trespassing—it’s true that members of the WWP illegally crossed over private lands to gather their E. coli-ridden samples. But of course, trespassing is already illegal:

“The Wyoming law is totally unnecessary to criminalize trespass onto private land,” William Funk, a professor of law at the Lewis and Clark University, wrote to ABC News in a statement. Funk also argued that collecting data is a form of free speech protected by the First Amendment.

And instead of limiting the new law to private property, Wyoming legislators use the designation “open land,” which refers to, “land outside the exterior boundaries of any incorporated city, town, subdivision.” Which…if you think about it is a lot of goddamn land, including government parks like Yellowstone. Finally, designating only data headed for governmental agencies as a violation is a sure mark this legislation is just an attempt to dodge environmental responsibility.

That's a paddlin'

In reality, you probably won’t be prosecuted for your selfie at Old Faithful. But far-reaching, sloppy legislation like this is a dire sign of how far those who would endanger people and the environment for political ends are willing to go to keep their heads firmly planted in the sand.

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