NOT WITHOUT PERMISSION: Wyoming lawmakers cracking down on resource data theft from private property | TSLN.com

NOT WITHOUT PERMISSION: Wyoming lawmakers cracking down on resource data theft from private property

Laura Nelson
for Tri-State Livestock News

Wyoming lawmakers have shown overwhelming support for a pair of bills to punish anyone who takes data from private property without permission from the the landowner. Photo by Laura Nelson

If a burglar breaks in and takes nothing but numbers from a social security card and driver's license, there's little doubt theft has occurred.

Taking resource data from private property is no different than identity theft, Wyoming Senator Larry Hicks (R-Baggs) contends, particularly when the offender is illegally trespassing to acquire that data. Hicks serves on the state's Joint Judiciary Committee, which sponsored bills in Wyoming's 2015 Legislative Session that would create civil and criminal ramifications for trespassing to collect data and limit the use of unlawfully collected data.

"We're talking about data that by its very nature is collected to jeopardize the livelihood of landowners," Hicks said, which is why Senate File 12 creates criminal ramification while its companion bill, Senate File 80, creates civil recourse for landowners who may realize damage to their economic entities because of data collected while trespassing.

SF12 focuses on the creating stipulations under which illegally collected data may not be used, must be expunged from databases and may not be admissible as evidence in civil, criminal or administrative proceedings. SF 80 notes that any individual who unlawfully collects resource data may be found liable for any economic damages and associated litigation costs from a successful claimant.

"This will be a game changer as far as how our state does business," Hicks said. "It means we're going to do a little better job in communicating with our landowners. This starts to raise that barrier back up to preserve those constitutional protections for private land owners."

The bills have earned overwhelming support on both sides of the session – SF 12 passed its third reading in the Senate with 26-3 support and the third reading in the House with 49-10 support. It failed in concurrence Feb. 24 and was sent back to the Joint Judiciary Committee …(still waiting to hear back as to WHY exactly). The civil companion bill SF 80 passed out of the Senate on a 26-4 in its final reading there, and it has been placed on file for its second reading in the House as of Feb. 24.

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Jim Magagna, Wyoming Stockgrowers Association executive vice president, said the bills undoubtedly raise a private property issue of great importance to their ranching members.

"Whatever data is on your land is your possession," Magagna said. "So if someone is going across private land or accessing that land to collect data, besides being trespassing, in my view, that's theft."

According to the SF 12 bill language, "'resource data' means data relating to land or land use, including but not limited to data regarding agriculture, minerals, geology, history, cultural artifacts, archeology, air, water, soil, conservation, habitat, vegetation or animal species."

The "poster child" that prompted the development of these bills in the state point to the Western Watershed Project, Magagna explained. According to their website, the Western Watersheds Project is a nonprofit environmental conservation group "with a primary focus on the negative impacts of livestock grazing on 250 million acres of western public lands."

The group and its employee are currently listed as defendants in a civil trespass lawsuit brought by 15 Wyoming landowners. The suit was filed in June 2014, alleging that the defendants were "intentionally and without landowner permission trespassing and entering private property," according to a Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation news release, in order to collect water quality data.

In the Western Watershed Project's December 2014 filed motion to dismiss the suit, court documents note that the group engaged in "monitoring activities that include sampling water from streams crossing federal land and providing the results of those water samples to state regulatory agencies, which lack the means to comprehensively monitor water quality."

"As a result of the water quality samples taken by WWP, Wyoming has already listed three streams as impaired waterways under the federal Clean Water Act," the WWP-filed court documents note.

Magagna said while this lawsuit is not the only instance that prompted the Stockgrower's support of the trespassing to collect data legislation, it's a reminder to landowners to be vigilant of potential trespassers and activities on their private property.

If enacted, the bills would also apply to and test the legality of data collection from private land while utilizing an administrative easement or surface use agreements, Hicks said.

"You may have a legal or contracted mechanism to allow individuals to access your surface. They may have administrative access to cross you, but they don't have access to do whatever they want on your land," Hicks said.

Magagna noted that he hopes the potential passage of legislation like this increases positive communication between landowners and public entities and other data gatherers.

"If I have sage grouse leks on my property, I may want certain agencies to know about that, because it shows I'm making a positive contribution to sustaining that environment," Magagna said. "But the bottom line is, it should be my decision whether I want that agency to be out there gathering that type of data."