Dedicated to advancing scholarly and public understanding of the past, present, and future of western North America, the Center supports research, teaching, and reporting about western land and life in the United States, Canada, and Mexico.

Center News and Notes

Center Media Fellow Explores Decline of Ranching on Public Lands

Click to see the full graphic on High Country News

The armed standoff at Bundy Ranch in southern Nevada in 2013 reignited a long-running debate over ranching on public lands. Cliven Bundy's refusal to pay fees for cattle grazing rallied those who felt that large holdings of federal land were smothering economic opportunity in the West – in Nevada, for example, nearly 85 percent of the land is owned by parts of the federal government.

A powerful and enduring symbol of the American West, rangeland cattle grazing has nonetheless been shrinking for many years, with the amount of livestock on federal lands dropping by more than half since the 1950s. Nevada has been hit particularly hard, declining nearly 75 percent from its modern peak in 1954.

But is federal policy to blame for the decline of western ranchers? With the support of a Western Enterprise Media Fellowship from the Bill Lane Center, the journalist Tay Wiles set out to understand what is ailing cattle ranching. To this end, Wiles and her colleagues gathered 50 years of grazing data from the Bureau of Land Management and the United States Forest Service, some of which had never been digitized before. In the resulting story for High Country News, Wiles writes,

One of the prime drivers of the 45-year-old Sagebrush Rebellion, the movement to take control of public lands from the federal government, is the sense that rural western ranchers are bullied by forces beyond their control. That narrative remains compelling, in part because it’s true.

In looking for forces behind ranching's decline, Wiles finds more to blame than environmental regulations (the most widely criticized federal policy), all of which have contributed to a "perfect storm" buffeting ranchers: the switch to polyester yarn after World War II, which depressed demand for wool; the growing use of feedlots to raise cattle, which lowered the cost of beef and cut ranchers' operating margins; private conservation organizations that bought and retired grazing lands; advances in rangeland science, which set limits of how much livestock arid landscapes could support; and in many areas, urban growth – Bundy's ranch in Southern Nevada ranch is situated in the same county as fast-growing Las Vegas.

If those factors haven't been hard enough for ranchers to endure, prolonged droughts have added more hardship, Wiles writes, forcing ranchers "to sell off animals that their allotments can no longer support."

The full report contains a number of maps and data visualizations tracing the changing fortunes of western cattle ranching.

Read more at High Country News »

New Poll Finds Support for Clinton and Trump in California - Up to a Point

With Memorial Day behind us and the California presidential primaries just a week away, the latest Golden State Poll shows Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump to be in good shape. According to the poll, Clinton leads Bernie Sanders by 13 points (51 to 38 percent), while Trump stood at 66 percent support. But the poll also warns that the front-runners in both parties face coming obstacles: in Clinton's case, a lack of enthusiasm among younger voters, and for Trump, weaker support among California Republicans than Mitt Romney, the 2012 nominee.

In other races, Attorney General Kamala Harris leads Rep. Loretta Sanchez (26 to 13 percent) and three Republican challengers (standing at 6 percent) in the race to succeed outgoing U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer.

Stanford News Service has a summary of the poll findings

Clinton, meanwhile, continues to struggle with younger primary voters – Sanders leads 61 percent to 30 percent among Californians under 30 and shows weakness among “no party preference” voters, trailing Sanders by 40 points. Clinton leads among registered Democratic voters by 17 points.

Bruce Cain, the Spence and Cleone Eccles Family Director of the Bill Lane Center, said: “The huge age divide in the Democratic contest poses a serious strategic question for the Clinton campaign: Spend a lot of money now to try to offset or reduce this gap to avoid an embarrassing primary outcome that will not affect the delegate count much, or be patient, save her money and address the problem in the fall.”

Carson Bruno has a deeper analysis in the new issue of Hoover's Eureka magazine, in which he looks at Californians' attitudes towards the economy, which he says are brightening overall:

Looking forward, while a majority of Californians think their finances will remain the same over the next six months, again we see general movement in the better off direction.  Moreover, for the first time a majority (54%) of employed Californians are confident in their ability to find a similarly paying new job in the next 6 months.

The quarterly poll of 1,700 adult Californians was administered by YouGov for the Hoover Institution, and was designed in association with The Bill Lane Center for the American West. 

Carrie Kemper Talks About Writing Television’s “Silicon Valley”

Carrie Kemper, left, spoke at Stanford with Shelley Fisher Fishkin about writing for the HBO comedy series “Silicon Valley.” (Photo: Preeti Hehmeyer)  Watch complete video of the event »

Karl Marx famously remarked that “history repeats itself first as tragedy and then as farce.” As the Bay Area rides out its second tech boom in two decades, the hilarious, profane, and merciless television comedy “Silicon Valley” has been mining the economy-disrupting, culture-changing tech industry for laughs. Now in its third season on HBO, the show follows the triumphs and tribulations of Richard Hendricks, a geekily brilliant programmer whose data compression startup Pied Piper finds sudden success, only to send him on an Homeresque odyssey through the wilds of VC investors, gyrating valuations, litigation, and outright theft. 

On May 12, the “Silicon Valley” writer and producer Carrie Kemper spoke to the Center's American West undergraduate course about turning the tech world into entertaining television. Kemper graduated from Stanford in 2006 with a degree in American Studies, and soon afterward found herself working at Google. Her experiences, along with those of series creator Mike Judge (who worked as a developer in the late 1980s), inform the show.

Trying to Keep it Real

How realistic is the show's portrayal, asked Shelley Fisher Fishkin, a renowned Mark Twain scholar and chronicler of literary and theatrical satire. “I went to visit some Stanford friends of mine,” said Kemper, “They have a company called Gridspace, and one of the founders said, ‘I cannot watch your show because it stresses me out too much, it’s too real. I deal with this every day, I’m sorry’– and that was like the greatest compliment!”

The show takes a “ripped from the headlines” approach to portraying the tech industry, mixing real brand names with fictional companies like Hooli, whose hypercompetitive founder consults with a guru and confides, “I can’t live in a world where someone else is making the world a better place.” But some of the characters in the real Silicon Valley are so over the top, said Kemper, that “there are people who are almost too on the nose to satirize.” She described an intense meeting with an R&D executive during a “research trip” the writers took to the Bay Area. “At the end, he arose and rollerbladed to the door. It was like, you know what? If it were in the show it would just be too stupid,” Kemper laughed.

A friend told Kemper, “I cannot watch your show because it stresses me out too much, it’s too real. I deal with this every day, I’m sorry.”

Booms and Busts

Given out that booms and busts are a recurring feature of western American history, Fisher Fishkin asked Kemper if the specter of another tech bust haunts the show. 

“When we were writing Jack Barker,” said Kemper about Pied Piper’s new Steve Ballmer-esque CEO, “that was our way of acknowledging the incoming bust. He’s preoccupied by it.”

“It will be interesting to see next season how it will affect the show,” she added. “But it’s also funny because I caught myself saying, ‘Man, it would be such a shame if the bubble bursts because the show won’t seem realistic!’” to which her friend interjected, “Yeah, and like, the economy will collapse.” “Oh, right, yeah, I know, I know,” allowed Kemper sheepishly.

Silicon Valley forms an important chapter in the story of the American West, whose study the Center has nurtured through the support of projects like the Silicon Valley Archives at the Stanford Libraries, and the research of former Center scholars like Margaret O’Mara, whose work traces the origins of Silicon Valley’s high-tech industry.

In the background of it all, of course, is Stanford University, which groomed many of today’s titans and contributes mightily to the tech industry’s workforce. “I am constantly pitching things Stanford-related,” said Kemper, “There was going to be a big intro sequence with Richard and Jared trying to find an old CS professor of Richard’s, and I was really pitching hard for a huge bike collision in the background. I was like, ’Guys, it’s going to be very funny.’”

Watch the complete video interview with Carrie Kemper »

Stanford and Peninsula Cities to Address Transportation and Accessibility

Stanford student Andrew Ntim (in green) interacting with other participants at the city managers' forum. (Christine Baker)

On May 2, a group of Bay Area city managers met at Stanford to examine the dreaded "last-mile" problem in local and regional transportation. The term refers to the long distances often found between Bay Area transit hubs and the homes and workplaces residents need to get to. The event, which was co-sponsored by the Center, ended in a ground-breaking agreement among the university and the cities of Palo Alto, Mountain View, and Menlo Park to jointly address mobility challenges in the area. Below, a recap of the event by the Stanford sophomore Andrew Ntim, re-posted from the Stanford Public Policy program.

How do we solve the critical transit and transportation issues – bike lanes, parking spots, public transit – that the Bay Area faces today? That was the question of the day for the policy forum “Moving on Mobility: Last Mile Transportation Solutions” held on May 2, 2016 at Stanford. Organized by the Bill Lane Center for the American West, Stanford Public Policy, The Precourt Institute for Energy, and Joint Venture Silicon Valley, the event brought together city managers and transit specialists from around the Bay Area to advance the discussion of regional mobility issues.

Following introductory remarks from Stanford professor and Bill Lane Center for the American West Director Bruce Cain, along with Palo Alto city manager James Keene, the forum began with a discussion of “Last Mile” problems and solutions in the Bay Area from Stanford Precourt Institute for Energy Professor Stefan Heck. In his presentation, Heck discussed the various inefficiencies and dangers in various car-centric Bay Area downtowns, advocating for a more biker, transit and pedestrian heavy future. According to Heck, new technologies such as e-bikes, car sharing, and driverless vehicles will assist in ­­­making this future a reality.

The following speaker, Jamie Jarvis, Stanford Research Park’s Transportation Demand Manager, provided a deeper perspective on the transit issue, offering up employer-based solutions that Stanford Research Park has recently pursued. In the same vein, Jeff Tumlin of Nelson\Nygaard Consulting Associates discussed various solutions to Mountain View’s North Bayshore neighborhood– a so-called “Impossible First/Last Mile Problem,” due to its lack of services and transit.

Launch Day for Stanford Press' First-Ever Digital Monograph

Screen shot from "Enchanting the Desert"

May 16, 2016 marks a milestone in academic publishing at Stanford: the university's press has just released "Enchanting the Desert," an interactive digital monograph by the geographer Nicholas Bauch. Bauch worked on Enchanting the Desert at the Bill Lane Center for the American West and the Spatial History Project at Stanford during his postdoctoral fellowship from 2011 to 2015.

Now available for free online, "Enchanting the Desert" is a sweeping interactive analysis of the Grand Canyon as seen through the work of a 19th century photographer, Henry G. Peabody, who created an audio-visual tour of the Canyon that could be presented to public audiences as "lantern slides" – one of the first instances of electrically illuminated slide shows. Bauch, who will join the faculty of the University of Oklahoma this summer, is presenting the website on a live Facebook stream, which is available on our website.

Watch the launch event »

Once More to the Sea


On a misty Saturday morning, nearly 40 hikers set out from Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve for the fifth annual Stanford to the Sea hike, a roughly 22-mile journey across the Santa Cruz Mountains organized by the Center in partnership with the Peninsula Open Space Trust.

The group, who by lunchtime reached 50 in number, enjoyed the well-maintained trails of Wunderlich County Park and Purisima Redwoods Open Space Preserve, and got to stop at regular intervals for informal talks about the area's open spaces and the western environmental issues in an era of climate change.

Tom Davids, a docent and former mayor of San Carlos, told the story of James Folger, who at 14 years old arrived in California with his two brothers and began selling packets of coffee (for which his company would become famous) to gold miners. Folger's fortune helped him purchase a large estate on the Peninsula after the 1906 earthquake; these lands eventually entered public ownership as Wunderlich County Park, which winds up the hills to Skyline Boulevard and constitutes a fairly uphill first half of the route. Davids stopped a second time to talk about techniques pre-mechanical loggers used to down the imposing old-growth redwoods that grew there in the early 20th century – logs that helped rebuild San Francisco.

Over sandwiches at lunch, the two-time former Deputy Secretary of the Interior David J. Hayes, of Stanford Law School, spoke about Friday's day-long conference organized by the Stanford Woods Institute of the Environment. The purpose of the gathering of policymakers, researchers, and business leaders was to help set a climate change agenda for the next presidential administration.

Near the bottom of Purisima Redwoods Open Space Preserve in Half Moon Bay, walkers took a break to hear from Nicole Heller and Jennifer Lynch of the Peninsula Open Space Trust, which has acquired many miles of lands and committed them to conservation, recreation, and sustainable cultivation.

Hikers reached the Pacific Coast Highway around 5pm and boarded buses to San Gregorio State Beach, where many doffed their shoes and revelled in the cool, soothing ocean water, before repairing to a reception and dinner at TomKat Ranch generously hosted by Tom Steyer and Kathryn Taylor.

For those who are interested in trying the route, which the Bill Lane Center has now followed for the past four years and entirely comprised of public rights of way, we will be sharing a detailed map soon. For now, our heartfelt thanks to the hikers, the speakers, our co-organizers at POST, and our hosts at TomKat Ranch.

View more photographs from Stanford to the Sea »

Article Explores Turbulent History of Coastal Agency

Image from the new article “Tides of Tension,” exploring the history of the California Coastal Commission

With the California Coastal Commission meeting in Sonoma this week, the Center has published a new article exploring structural tensions built into the 44-year old regulatory agency – tensions that came to a head in February with the controversial firing of Executive Director Charles Lester.

In his article “Tides of Tension,” Todd Holmes, a historian and postdoctoral scholar at the Center since 2013, describes the heated scene in Morro Bay as the commissioners voted – for the first time in the agency’s history – to depose their administrator.

Anger pierced the room following the announcement. Some hurled insults at the commissioners; others sat in their seats and cried. And in the wake of the Commission’s Morro Bay meeting, this anger continued to simmer. Many charged that Lester’s dismissal was a “power grab” by political appointees in the effort to wrest further control away from an independent staff.

— From “Tides of Tension

Holmes follows with a provocative question: does the firing of a respected administrator by political appointees suggest the “capture” of the Commission by the very development industries it is intended to regulate? “Tension, rather than capture,” Holmes suggests instead, “best explains the events that erupted at Morro Bay — a tension that long preceded Charles Lester’s tenure, and one inherent within the structure of the commission itself.”

Todd Holmes Portrait

Holmes wil be joining UC Berkeley’s Oral History Center as its new historian and academic specialist, while remaining an affiliated scholar with the Bill Lane Center for the American West.

Holmes points out that – by design – the Coastal Commission is composed of two autonomous, at times competing, bodies: the commission (12 members appointed in equal proportion by the Governor, Assembly, and Senate) and a staff of expert civil servants. And throughout the agency’s history, tension has increasingly flared between the agency’s staff and appointed commissioners. The article provides an engaging history of the four executive directors who steered the agency during its existence – sometimes into fierce headwinds. In this context, Lester’s firing was not anomaly, but a product of the tides of tension that has afflicted the agency for decades.

The article reflects extensive research that Holmes has conducted over the last two years at the Center, exploring the Commission’s history, conducting extensive archival research and collaborating with the Bancroft Library’s Oral History Center at UC Berkeley. Later this month, Todd wil be joining the Oral History Center as its new historian and academic specialist, while remaining an affiliated scholar with the Bill Lane Center.

“Tides of Tension” represents part of Center’s larger effort, the California Coastal Commission Project, which seeks to trace the origins and long-term performance of the 44-year-old agency, the first and only in California to be created by a popular vote. As part of the project, the Center’s Iris Hui has analyzed the agency’s permit decisions from 1994 to 2014. Her February paper discussed the negotiation process and approval rate of projects submitted to the Commission during this 18-year period, which averaged around 80 percent. Often discussed within the tones of obstructionism and environmental activism, research by the Bill Lane Center has revealed a more nuanced and complex picture of one of California’s most powerful agencies and its regulation of the most desired coastline in the Western Hemisphere.

Read the full article, ‘Tides of Tension’ »

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