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

A ‘Peace’ of Something Greater

Image: Historical mapping of the Walnut Creek watershed is the culmination of months of archival research, data compilation and synthesis, and georeferencing of historical maps. The above image shows an incomplete version of the mapping, still with many features to be added and problems to resolve.

By Tyler McIntosh
B.S. Earth Systems, 2016
Summer Intern at the San Francisco Estuary Institute

Read about our summer interns on the Out West student blog. Throughout the summer, the Center's interns and Research Assistants will be sending in virtual postcards, snapshots and reports on their summer work.

As this summer has spun by, so too have many projects at the San Francisco Estuary Institute (SFEI). From data collection trips in southern California to the California Climate Change Symposium in Sacramento, I’ve traveled and learned, learned as I’ve traveled, and changed as I’ve learned.

My time with SFEI is coming to a close, and as I look back I wonder where it all went. Time does indeed fly when you’re… learning about historical ecology? I suppose that there is an answer to where the time went: the majority of my contributions were to the Walnut Creek: Flood Control 2.0 project, a small piece of the dynamic puzzle of flood prevention in the Bay Area.

From my first days at SFEI through to my last, I’ve helped shepherd the Walnut Creek project through the winding pathways of historical ecology research. Data finding, collection, and compilation were followed by synthesis and digitization with a GIS. As the summer comes to a close, the Walnut Creek project progresses into the stages of analysis and reporting, which, sadly, I won’t have the time to contribute to. The project is slated to continue into 2017. However, I did assist in report writing, copyediting, and reference compilation for the Tijuana River Historical Ecology project, which is at a later stage of its life. The combination of these two projects (in addition to smaller, more tangential tasks) gave me a chance to learn about environmental science, myself, and my future path.

The future is always tied to our past, within ourselves as well as when examining landscapes. I landed in the United States thirty-six hours before walking into SFEI for the first time. I had just returned from three months of studying and traveling in Chile and Argentina. Prior to picking up and leaving on my adventures, I had made the decision to switch my major from Mechanical Engineering to Earth Systems. Although the decision had been made, my mind was filled with uncertainty throughout my wanderings in South America. Had I made a mistake?

Perhaps the most important thing that I have gotten out of this summer is a sense of peace: I have come to terms with the decision I made, and now feel excited and able to move forward. With SFEI’s help, I’ve gained an understanding of the lumbering machine that is the environmental sector and where I may fit into it. While I may not become a historical ecologist, my work this summer has formed the perfect springboard from which to vault into the upcoming year of study and brought my pre-existing interest in the environment to new levels. Although I hope to move in the direction of applying my quantitative engineering to the challenges of environmental science, communication remains in the back of my mind. In today’s world it is unacceptable for scientists to exist within the polished boundaries of the ivory tower—even if one is not directly involved in communication, it is essential to consider how one’s work will be communicated, and what its role is in the now critical world of policy and public environmentalism. I am, as the Fleet Foxes sing, “a functioning cog in some great machinery, serving something beyond me.”

The Salton Sea: Natural or Not?

Panoramic view of the Salton Sea shore. (image: Akos Kokai via Flickr)

Daniel PolkDaniel Polk is an anthropologist and postdoctoral scholar at the Center. His research looks at the politics of water in the borderlands of California. Here, he describes his research on the Salton Sea, the California's largest lake by area and a vast but rapidly changing body of water in the southern desert.

In the arid lowlands of the Imperial Valley lies the Salton Sea, California’s largest and perhaps most uncanny body of water. An inland sump, it is an enclosed drainage endpoint, a vast sheet of water surrounded by the heat and brittle aridness of the desert basin. With no outlet to the ocean, the lake’s concentration of salts and sediments only increases, mixed with fertilizers and pesticides from nearby agricultural runoff.

Image: Patty Mullins via Flickr

The lake is a habitat for hundreds of species of migrating birds, a vital stopover on the hemispheric migratory route known as the Pacific Flyway. Yet it remains a perilously balanced ecosystem. The lake teeters between fish population booms and massive fish die-offs, its shore carpeted with dried barnacles and fish bones. The Salton Sea also stands out for its recent history, arising only a century ago from the inundation of canals and levees along the Colorado River. In the press and most other accounts, the lake is nothing if not unnatural—a product of hastily-cut engineering, an out-of-place ecology. An examination of the Salton Sea however shows how this place resists ready categorization of “natural” or not.

Many refer to the Salton Sea as an “accident of engineering.” However, it was not solely the result of slipshod canal works that resulted in the epic 1905-1907 flood.

The lake is a relatively young body of water. Its recent history attests to claims of its unusual nature. The Salton Sea began to rise when the Colorado River flooded through a shoddy irrigation canal in 1905. The full force of the river flowed into the Imperial Valley, led by gravity into the below sea-level basin until engineers dammed the flood in 1906. The river then broke through a levee, filling the basin until it was finally stopped in 1907. Many refer to the Salton Sea as an “accident of engineering.” However, it was not solely the result of slipshod canal works that resulted in the epic 1905-1907 flood. The Colorado River has frequently flooded the valley; geologists estimate that an ancient lake twice the size of today’s Salton Sea has periodically filled the basin for millennia. One wonders, if the levees had not been constructed in the first place then the river would have flooded into the basin on its own. If anything, the damming of the 1907 flood (and the continued irrigation water feeding the lake presently) have created a small-sized sea whereas in its place “Mother Nature” would have perhaps allowed the river to fill the basin to the brim.

Image: Travis S. via Flickr

Another aspect of the lake reflecting it unique attributes is perpetual environmental constraints. The Salton Sea is home to millions of salinity-resistant fish, which in turn support migrating birds. Yet the high “nutrient load” of the waters lead to occasional algae blooms, which starve fish of oxygen and lead to thousands of dead fish washing onto the shore. During such events, the lake produces hydrogen sulfide gas, an odor as unpleasant as rotten eggs. Even these challenges may not strictly merit the label of “unnatural.” Such processes of high salinity, nutrient load, algae blooms, fish die-offs, etc. are common to other lakes—what scientists call “eutrophication.” The lake’s most unusual, unsettling sight—dead fish covering the shore—is itself the product of a process documented in many other “natural” bodies of water. It is rather the scale and rate of these processes that is special to the Salton Sea, accelerated by unintended human impacts—what scientists call “cultural eutrophication.”

Image: Thomas Hawk via Flickr

The lake’s most pressing problem is political: how to raise the will to “save” the Salton Sea. Because of a historic “water transfer” between the Imperial Valley and San Diego, water that would normally drain into the lake has been diverted to San Diego and its suburbs.

Instead of seeking a conclusion on whether the lake is “natural” or not, it is more useful to ask what purpose does the Salton Sea serve, what relations and circumstances does it make possible? For the lake’s most pressing problem is political: how to raise the will to “save” the Salton Sea. Because of a historic “water transfer” between the Imperial Valley and San Diego, water that would normally drain into the lake has been diverted to San Diego and its suburbs. This water transfer is slowly draining the Salton Sea, and it is to go into full effect after 2017, marking the time after which the Salton Sea could shrink to half its size. As a result, dried-up lakebed would be exposed to harsh desert winds, kicking up fine sediments mixed with decades of accumulated pesticides into the polluted air. These dust storms could hinder the industry, agriculture and tourism of nearby Mexicali, Imperial Valley and Palm Springs, threatening the public health of over one million people in the United States and Mexico. The lake’s environmental restoration is not for the goal of simply restoring a “natural” habitat but of caring for a place which so many are connected to. The Salton Sea is part of an ecosystem which countless people and institutions now depend on.

The lake demonstrates that the “natural” is a fluid and not fixed term. Proponents of the Salton Sea often emphasize the natural qualities of the lake. If the lake is unnatural, then its decline can be more readily accepted by the public, yet if it is a natural place, then its restoration becomes a more urgent imperative, less easy to ignore for those in power. As a postdoctoral scholar at the Bill Lane Center, I will be continuing my research on the politics of the Salton Sea, placing a focus on the ways that its impacts cross political boundaries. This requires investigations into not only how people make sense of and negotiate water management, but also how people make sense of their world and define nature itself. To do so requires historicizing the present predicaments of the Salton Sea and highlighting the political nature of its ecological crisis.

Living History

Image: Tyler McIntosh and Sean Baumgarten get excited during an archival research trip to the U.C. Berkeley Earth Sciences Library.

By Tyler McIntosh
B.S. Earth Systems, 2016
Summer Intern at the San Francisco Estuary Institute

Read about our summer interns on the Out West student blog. Throughout the summer, the Center's interns and Research Assistants will be sending in virtual postcards, snapshots and reports on their summer work.

The day comes to a close with the furious ‘click-click’ of the camera and desperate yet muted riffling of yellowed archive pages. It’s 5 o’clock at the California Historical Society and our team of archival researchers from the San Francisco Estuary Institute is being booted out the door.

The San Francisco Estuary Institute (SFEI) is composed of three different programs: Clean Water, Environmental Informatics, and Resilient Landscapes. I am the intern for the Resilient Landscapes program, which works to create ecologically diverse landscapes that are resilient to climate change and human disturbance. Historical Ecology is perhaps the largest component of the program—the process of studying landscapes as they used to exist, intersect, and interact. The study of historical ecology, at least in the case of SFEI, involves the use of hundreds of first- and second-hand documents, compiled and cross-referenced in order to compose a vision of the historical landscape. Vision components include habitat, land use change, hydrology, geomorphology, and native species.

It is for one such study that I find myself suddenly standing outside the California Historical Society’s doors, blinking against the sunlight and San Francisco’s bubbling flow.

The society is but one of many treasure-troves of information that SFEI digs through for information on the numerous projects that the organization constantly juggles. An NGO known throughout the Bay Area for quality science at a landscape scale, SFEI works to define environmental problems, provide sound scientific research and analysis, and connect information with those in planning, management, and policy-making positions.

Just like SFEI itself, over the past few weeks I’ve juggled work on a number of different projects. From GIS data entry and copy editing reports to researching the Pacific pocket mouse (an endangered species historically found in the lower Tijuana Valley in San Diego County) and continued historical ecology database searches and archive visits, I’ve gotten a chance to experience many of SFEI’s modes of communication and research. It’s been fascinating to see the massive scale of research outside of a strictly academic context.

I’ve also greatly appreciated the opportunities I’ve been given to learn about NGO functioning, project coordination, and the work that different organizations are doing in the Bay Area; between brown-bag lunches from partner organizations, sitting in on meetings, and being involved in and around the office, it’s nearly impossible NOT to learn something new.

Although my heart, lungs, and legs yearn for the open air of the mountains where I grew up, I’ve taken it upon myself to explore the Bay Area as best I can with what free time I’ve been able to squeeze from my busy days. My few short weeks of living in Berkeley have already shown me parts of California that I hadn’t seen before: the mirror of the bay cradled between golden-grassed hillsides, Mt. Diablo’s skin-frying sunbeams and sweeping vistas, San Francisco’s delights, Berkeley’s many hidden nooks and crannies, and so much more.

I look forward to continuing my summer with SFEI, learning more about the company’s internal workings and analysis process, and getting a chance to work on a variety of projects; in particular, historical ecology research on the Walnut Creek watershed and Mission Bay in Southern California.

A Demographic Portrait of State Legislators

Image: Image: one of the products of our study will be an interactive map with current state-by-state legislator demographics

By Michael Gioia
Intern, the National Conference of State Legislatures

Read about our summer interns on the Out West student blog. Throughout the summer, the Center's interns and Research Assistants will be sending in virtual postcards, snapshots and reports on their summer work.

In the last month, I have taken the plunge into a deep study of legislative demographics. While this is a long-term project that still won’t be completed when I leave NCSL, the ultimate product is still quite exciting: we are producing a comprehensive study that will not only longitudinally track changes in the demographics of state legislators, but also compares those demographics to those of the U.S. Congress and the national population as a whole.

I’ve been analyzing a wide variety of data, as we’re interested in everything from race and gender to the occupations and religion of state legislators. Of course, with such an ambitious project, there can be some bumps along the road. For instance, the U.S. Census and State Legislatures often use difference demographic categories, so we have spent a good deal of time deciding how to bridge those differences.

Despite the occasional challenge, working on this research project has been a very illuminating experience for me. My big goal for this summer was to get a better sense of the differences between doing research in university and non-university environments. While I have worked on similar subjects as a Research Assistant in Stanford’s Political Science Department, my project at NCSL has still proven to be a novel experience for me, just given the different culture and expectations. To begin with, much of our work has very clear stakeholders, who are paying dues in exchange for the research we provide. This being the case, projects at NCSL often require a quicker turnaround, along with a concise and direct report of findings. For me, this has produced a noticeable contrast with my time doing research at Stanford, where projects have a less strict schedule for deadlines, and consequentially are able to delve deeper into issues for the sake of intellectual curiosity. Given that I’m contemplating a career in research, understanding this difference in environments is enormously useful for me.

Another goal of mine for the summer was to better understand Colorado’s history and culture. I had never been to Colorado prior to my arrival this summer, and I hoped to use my ten weeks here to learn about and appreciate this part of the country. At this point, I think it’s safe to say that I’ve succeeded. In addition to exploring Denver, along with other parts of the state, I’ve learned a great deal about the history of the area, from its early growth dating back to an extension of the transcontinental railroad, to its contemporary challenges as Denver confronts unprecedented population growth. This history is not only interesting – it has helped me feel more connected to my home for the summer. I’m looking forward to my last few weeks here. I’m excited to see the product of all of my work grow closer towards completion, but I’m also getting ready to head home. With all of my work and adventures, I’ll need some time to rest!

A Trail Takes Shape in the Pacific Northwest

Pictures from the Pacific Northwest Trail Association's Instagram account

In the wilds of the Northwest, a trail is taking shape. Designated by an act of Congress in 2009, the Pacific Northwest Scenic Trail winds 1,200 miles from Glacier National Park in Montana to Cape Alava on Washington's Pacific coast. Along the way, the trail passes through the Rocky Mountains, Eastern Washington, the North Cascades, and the Olympic Mountains. It crosses three national parks and seven national forests. Like such well-known western routes as the Pacific Crest Trail, it passes largely through public lands managed by states, tribes, and agencies of the federal government. Some of the trail also crosses private lands, predominantly owned by timber companies.

Route of the Pacific Northwest Scenic Trail; click to enlarge.

But while the general route of the trail is largely set, many decisions will need to be made to refine the trail's scenic, historical, and environmental impact. For this reason, the trail's managing agency, the U.S. Forest Service, has decided to convene an advisory council to oversee its development.

We are pleased to announce that Bill Lane Center for the American West's founding former director David M. Kennedy was selected to join the trail's advisory council by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. Kennedy, a son of the Pacific Northwest and avid outdoorsman, says that he is thrilled to be involved with the committee, which will meet regularly starting in October 2015.

"I grew up in the Pacific Northwest and have back‐packed and horse‐packed much of the proposed route," says Kennedy. "I was honored to be asked to join the advisory committee, and hope to contribute some historical perspective to its development – and to be a voice for accessibility for all users, given my long‐time association with Environmental Traveling Companions (ETC), a San Francisco‐based service organization for people with disabilities."

David M. Kennedy

The Pacific Northwest Trail is the newest of 11 nationally designated scenic trails. The first was the Appalachian Trail, completed in 1937. Other western scenic trails include the Pacific Crest Trail (1968), Continental Divide Trail (1978), and the Arizona Trail (2009). Additionally, the federal government has designated national historical trails like the Oregon, California, Nez Perce, Pony Express, Santa Fe, El Camino, and Mormon Pioneer Trails. The historical trails are so designated because they "closely follow a historic trail or route of travel of national significance," according to the Bureau of Land Management, which stipulates that "their designation identifies and protects historic routes, historic remnants, and artifacts for public use and enjoyment."

The scenic trails, by comparison, "are extended trails that provide maximum outdoor recreation potential and for the conservation and enjoyment of the various qualities." It is these qualities that trail managers at the Forest Service and the trail's advisory council will need to assess and balance these with right-of-way and accessibiliity questions, community interests and impacts, and other concerns. 

For more information on the Pacific Northwest Scenic Trail, please see the U.S. Forest Service and the Pacific Northwest Trail Association.

Kathy Zonana Moves Into News

Photograph: L.A. Cicero, Stanford News Service

We're both sad to say goodbye to our Associate Director, Kathy Zonana, and pleased to see her move on to an editing position at Stanford Medicine magazine. For three years, Kathy has kept the Center running, from working with the Advisory Council, coordinating our 10-year review and handling some major gifts, to hiring staff and postdocs, to helping launch our first full-term undergraduate course, The American West. Not to mention putting on her sneakers and keeping our spirits up through several 20-mile hikes from Stanford to the Sea.

But above all, from my perspective, was Kathy's steady hand on public outreach work like our film series, guest speakers, book publications, and journalism projects. Her judgment and editing skills were a valuable backstop to our media projects, and she was an excellent ambassador for the Center at public events. Trained as a lawyer but with years of editorial experience, Kathy is a fine writer and a wonderful colleague, so while we will miss her dearly, we are glad to know that she is, to borrow a phrase from a 2012 Stanford News Service article featuring Kathy, "moving into news." We look forward to seeing her work in Stanford Medicine and seeing her around the Farm.

We will be posting more information about our staffing in the coming weeks, but in the meantime, please join us in wishing Kathy the very best for her next steps.

An 'Ambitiously Multidisciplinary Course' on the West

Frederic Remington's "Aiding a Comrade" from 1890 (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston/Public Domain)

The July/August issue of Stanford Magazine features the Center's undergraduate course The American West, which was offered for the second time during the spring quarter. The course, co-taught by professors from five different departments,"may be the most ambitiously multidisciplinary course on this or any other campus," says David M. Kennedy.

If you pick classes as if you're choosing from menus, The American West is where you go for fusion. Besides blending history, geography and politics with art and culture, the spring course brings together five noted professors in what amounts to an interdisciplinary banquet.

Bruce Cain is from political science, Shelley Fisher Fishkin from English, David Freyberg from civil and environmental engineering, David M. Kennedy from history, and Alexander Nemerov from art and art history. Each lecture session is usually apportioned among three of the professors, but there are periodic discussion segments in which they all participate.

The course will be offered again in the spring of 2016. More information is available on our website

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