According to the State of Wyoming, ignorance is a civic virtue and investigation and free thought a crime. The state’s conservative government has pulled ahead of the pack in the Republican-led campaign against science when Governor Matt Mead (R) signed into law a bill that criminalizes collecting information about the state of the environment “with the intent” to share it with the state or federal government.
The law is incredibly broad in scope, making it a crime to “collect resource data” or “preserve information in any form” from any “open land,” whether publicly or privately owned. Thus it is now a crime in Wyoming to engage in any form of citizen science – even taking a photograph of the environment – if it is shared with government in any way. Coming hot on the heels of efforts in Wisconsin and Florida to ban any research into or even discussion of climate change, the new Wyoming law is only the latest and most extreme example of a wide-reaching Republican crusade against science and knowledge.
From where, however, did Wyoming’s Republican overlords get the idea that citizens taking pictures of the state’s natural beauty were a threat? The answer, as is so often the case with abusive and totalitarian laws, is big business and lobbying groups. And in Wyoming, where cattle ranching is a multi-billion dollar industry, big business means Big Cattle.
The problem for Big Cattle is that not only has overgrazing led to land degradation throughout the state, but inadequate regulation has led to pollution of numerous Wyoming streams and rivers with a dangerous and potentially-fatal strand of the E. coli bacteria, which is found largely in cow excrement.
The Western Watersheds Project and several recent studies have confirmed the presence of E. coli concentrations in Wyoming waterways far in excess of what is considered safe, and have of course traced the source to cattle ranchers. The sensible solution would be to implement regulations and controls to assure that ranchers manage their herds properly, but Wyoming and its Big Cattle business would rather pretend the problem doesn’t exist to maintain their bottom lines.
The Wyoming Stock Grower’s Association, a cattle ranching lobby that is one of the most influential groups in the state and once launched a war on the state government, took its case to Cheyene. And, sure enough, the Republican-dominated government quickly bowed before the interests of big agribusiness, even if that meant contaminating the environment and endangering public safety.
Wyoming is not the first state to prioritize its big agriculture over decency and democracy – Idaho made it a crime to film animal abuse last year – but the scope of the new law, and all the ways it violates the Constitution Republican’s claim to swear by, is unprecedented. First of all, the new law is a blatant violation of the supremacy clause, which states that federal laws are the highest laws in the land.
A certain federal law called the Clean Water Act mandates that efforts be made to reduce contamination in surface water and encourages citizens to share information about unsafe conditions with their government, the latter of which is now punishable in Wyoming by a $1,000 fine and a year in prison. More fundamentally, the law makes a mockery of the First Amendment, not only criminalizing certain forms of speech and expression that are inconvenient to cattle ranchers, but also removing citizens’ right to petition and present information to their government.
It is an increasing trend among Republicans to ignore science when it doesn’t support their world view (which is almost all of the time) and to pretend that problems don’t exist if fixing them would be inconvenient. The new Wyoming law breaks new ground in this field by literally making it impossible to bring any case against the dangerous polluting cattle herders. According to the law, “no resource or data collected in violation of this section is admissible in any civil, criminal, or administrative proceeding” and such data “shall not be used in determining any agency action.”
There is clearly something drastically wrong in America when willed ignorance at the expense of public safety is the norm in Republican states nationwide and the Big Cow Manure lobby can determine state environmental policy.
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Opinion columnist and former editor-in-chief of Occupy Democrats. He graduated from Bennington College with a Bachelor's degree in history and political science. He now focuses on advancing the cause of social justice and equality in America.