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

Using Visualization to Analyze the Growth of the American West

A screenshot from "Geography of the Post," part of Cameron Blevins' PhD research.

Recent attention has focused on the work of Cameron Blevins, the Center's 2014-15 Thomas D. Dee II graduate dissertation fellow. As part of his study of the United States' western expansion, Cameron worked with the historian and digital humanities technologist Jason Heppler to build an interactive data visualization exploring the growth of the nation's postal system in the 19th century. The Stanford News Service has an article profiling Cameron and his work:

A doctoral candidate who studies U.S. history and digital humanities, Blevins has developed Geography of the Post, an interactive digital platform that visualizes where and when post offices opened and closed. The locations act as proxies for communities, Blevins explained, and indicate which settlements were temporary and which evolved into long-lasting towns. (Stanford News Service)

The digital narratives blog Storybench, a collaboration between Northeastern University and Esquire Magazine, also took note of Cameron's work:

From sourcing to analyzing to visualizing 19th century post office data, Blevins is at the forefront of digital humanities, a burgeoning field that applies the latest technologies to study the past. For his project, Blevins employed many of the same digital tools being used across disciplines like journalism and design to tell stories with data. He gave Storybench an under-the-hood look at his dissertation, “Geography of the Post.” (

The Center's Thomas D. Dee II Graduate Fellowship offers one year of support for a student in the School of Humanities & Sciences conducting dissertation research on the North American West. Cameron will begin a postdoctoral fellowship in history this year at Rutgers University.

Seeking Summer Research Assistants

The Bill Lane Center for the American West is seeking to hire undergraduate researchers to join our research teams for "Enchanting the Desert," "So Long Return Flow," "Local Coastal Programs," and more. More details and application information follow below.

Malibu Beach, CA, and the Grand Canyon, via Wikimedia Commons.

In addition to our summer internships, the Bill Lane Center seeks five undergraduate research assistants to join us for an exciting summer of research. Projects run full time for 10 weeks through the summer quarter, with some starting in the spring term at 10 hours per week. Students will be compensated at the normal University rate for undergraduate RAs, and will have access to a vibrant community of scholars throughout their involvement with the Center. 

So Long Return Flow

Efficient irrigation systems – such as sprinklers or drip irrigation – allow farmers to use all of the water allocated to them and are likely to increase crop yield. However, traditional flood irrigation returns much more water to rivers, leaving more water for downstream users and for natural ecosystems. This project seeks to understand how different irrigation techniques affect the yield of different crops, water consumption, and whether it makes economic sense for farmers to adopt them. We seek a research assistant to analyze political and scientific documents in Western states regarding water allocations and the push for more efficient irrigation systems. A background in agricultural engineering, agricultural economics, and public policy is desirable. Read more about the position and how to apply here; applications will be reviewed on a rolling basis.

Local Coastal Programs and Coastal Planning

In the state of California, Local Coastal Programs (LCPs) are basic planning tools used by local governments to guide development in the coastal zone, in partnership with the Coastal Commission. While each LCP reflects unique characteristics of individual local coastal communities, regional and statewide interests and concerns must also be addressed in conformity with Coastal Act goals and policies. We are looking for a research assistant to conduct a comparative case study of LCPs in California. Read more about the position and how to apply here; applications will be reviewedon a rolling basis.

Measuring and visualizing metropolitan areas: understanding the space of urban America

The Office for Management and Budget defines metropolitan areas as having a large urban center and a certain proportion of commuters in the population. Having explored the robustness of commuting as a metric, we will now integrate other metrics such as public services (transit, water supply, etc.) and communication to deepen our understanding of metropolitan areas. This summer, we will test the effect of the distribution of public services and people’s behaviors on the definition of metro areas. We seek an undergraduate student to investigate these metrics and their behavior over time and space, and to visualize and compare the trajectories of different metropolitan areas in the contiguous United States. Read more about the position and how to apply here; applications will be reviewed on a rolling basis.

The California Coastal Commission: A New History of Environmental Politics

Established in 1972, the California Coastal Commission was a government/public agency established for the conservation and protection of the state’s coastal zone. This project seeks to uncover the history of this important agency, tracing how it changed over time, its regional variances, and its contributions to environmental policy—both past and present. We seek three undergraduate students with broad interests in western, political, and environmental history and policy who wish to strengthen their knowledge in these areas and contribute to a new exciting project through archival research. Read more about the position and how to apply here; applications are due February 22, 2015.

Enchanting the Desert

This project seeks to “enchant” the Grand Canyon region with a diversity of geographic information, augmenting Henry Peabody's photographs with detailed human history. Users experience the Grand Canyon from a variety of perspectives simultaneously, affording them the opportunity to read the landscape synthetically through interwoven commentaries. We seek students who bring practical knowledge or interest in programming and the development of interactive visualization tools to join photography and cartography for geographical research. Read more about the position and how to apply here; applications are due March 15, 2015.

Collaboration Was Key to Knight-Risser Prize-Winning "Sea Change"

Craig Welch, left, and Steve Ringman in Papua New Guinea reporting "Sea Change"

With the Knight-Risser Prize Symposium coming to Stanford on February 25, we present an interview with the prize winners, Steve Ringman and Craig Welch of the Seattle Times, who will be honored for their work on the series "Sea Change: The Pacific's Perilous Turn." The Knight-Risser Prize for Western Environmental Journalism is an annual prize that is co-sponsored by the Center and the John S. Knight Fellowships at Stanford.


Reporter Craig Welch and photojournalist Steve Ringman traveled to four states and two countries and interviewed about 150 people for their project on how the rapid rise in ocean acidification could have a disastrous effect on the sustainability of sea life. But the heart of the “Sea Change” project, the 2015 winner of the Knight-Risser Prize for Western Environmental Journalism, was much closer to home – their relationship with each other. Their collaboration, they say, drove the story from the time the idea was being formed to the final editing process.


Stanford Press Pioneers Digital Humanities Publication with "Born-Digital" Project

An annotated photograph on Nicholas Bauch's upcoming website, "Enchanting the Desert." Photo courtesy of the Huntington Library, San Marino, CA.

The Center and CESTA postdoctoral researcher Nicholas Bauch has spent the last three years exploring the work of the early-20th-century photographer Henry Peabody, whose travelogue of the Grand Canyon is one of the earliest surviving such collections. Nick's research has led him from back-country hikes above the Colorado River to computer labs where he has geomapped and analyzed the photographs and their documentation of the canyon's features, while developing an interactive website presenting the photographs, analytical essays, and maps of the canyon. Nick says the site allows users to explore the geography on their own terms, in a way that "would be unwieldy on paper, but on a digital platform becomes seamlessly navigable."

In 2014, his work, "Enchanting the Desert," became the very first "born digital" project to be accepted for publication by the Stanford University Press. Nick has written a post today for the Press' blog expressing his elation that digital humanities ("DH") has been validated by a publisher.

Until now, no university press has been willing and/or able to critically peer-review and publish meaningful research projects that are “born-digital.” Because of SUP’s prescient digital publishing initiative, the gap between what DH scholars are making and the established pathways of traditional academic distribution and accreditation is now much, much smaller. Until now, this gap threatened the very survival of DH because there was no incentive for a group of researchers to spend their time building a digital platform to advance their arguments when there was always the looming pressure to do the “real work” of publishing.

Nick continues,

The SUP initiative is not only an outlet, but a lightning rod, announcing to the academic world that DH is, quite literally, official. The hope that I share with the editors and directors at SUP is that from this point forward you can use digital media to express ideas, and that—just like books—if they are deemed good ideas by professional peer-reviewers and editors, they might be published.

Applications Are Now Open for the Bill Lane Center's 2015 Summer Internships

World's Most Beautiful Office: Yosemite Valley. Photo: Heather Glenny, 2014 summer intern at the Yosemite Museum.

This year, we are pleased to offer 10 summer internships in the West. Students have the opportunity to work with national parks, nonprofit organizations, and private organizations on a variety of exciting projects. Many placements are with long-time partners, including two opportunities with the Golden Gate National Recreation Area for the first time in five years.

Our summer opportunities are open to current and graduating undergraduate students. We offer fantastic opportunities for students seeking to explore careers in natural history, conservation, land use, museum curation, resource management, and related fields. Internships are 10 weeks (exact dates may be negotiated with the host organization) and compensated with stipends to help cover living expenses, including housing, transportation, and food.

Applications are due on February 6, 2015.

Current Openings

Internship Organization
Historic Preservation Intern, Fort Mason
Golden Gate National Recreation Area
Historic Preservation Intern, Alcatraz
Golden Gate National Recreation Area
Environmental Modeling Intern Henry's Fork Foundation
Sales and Marketing Intern Heyday
Legislative Studies Intern
National Conference of State Legislatures
Resilient Landscapes Program Intern
San Francisco Estuary Institute
Archeology Intern
Yellowstone National Park
Curatorial Intern Yellowstone National Park
Museum Intern
Yosemite National Park
Archives & Records Management Intern Yosemite National Park

Understanding Crisis and Resilience in California's Housing Markets

Photo: Stockton, California street in 2008, cc licensed from Inman News service via Flickr

Hugo Lefebvre was a visiting scholar at the Center in 2013 and 2014, supported by the Fulbright and Palladio foundations. A researcher in geography and geopolitics, he is continuing his work at the University of Paris Dauphine’s department of Real Estate and Urban Planning. In this post for the Center, he describes his work exploring the roots of the foreclosure crisis in the Northern San Joaquin Valley.

My work at the Bill Lane Center extended and completed my doctoral research on the housing crisis in the Northern San Joaquin Valley. In the decade preceding the Great Recession, this region experienced very fast urban growth, fueled by the out-migration of people from the San Francisco Bay Area. When the crisis started, the San Joaquin Valley was devastated by foreclosures, experiencing one of the highest rates in the nation. This sudden collapse was unforeseen, and it caused major problems for cities that had based their fiscal expectations on continuing urban growth.

In my doctoral research, I had found that urban growth and foreclosures are correlated. This association is in part structural: many people who moved into the valley during this period of fast urban growth were sold subprime loans. Indeed, such mortgages were extremely frequent at the time – especially because lenders and brokers promoted them to home buyers (particularly minorities) even when they could have obtained better loans. I also concluded that the competition between local administrations for potential tax revenues reduced their incentive to manage urban growth in the valley before the crisis. This explained why the valley grew so fast, and also the explosion of foreclosures after the crisis started. 

During my time at the Bill Lane Center, I studied the evolution of the San Francisco Bay Area in order to measure and better understand its resilience after the housing crisis. Several scholars have recently argued that American cities are experiencing a major restructuring. They claim that, after more than 70 years of suburbanization, peripheral areas are not attractive anymore — for demographic, cultural and economic reasons — and that people are moving back to center cities. Of course, gentrification is not a new phenomenon (the term was coined 50 years ago, in 1964), but the decline (or the perception of the decline) of second-ring suburbs and exurbs certainly is. The Northern San Joaquin Valley – ground zero for foreclosures – is a perfect laboratory to test this hypothesis. 

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