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

Seeking Undergraduate Research Assistants for the Summer

With the summer fast approaching, the Bill Lane Center for the American West has several openings for undergraduate research assistants. Supported by the Center in collaboration with the office of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education (VPUE), the RAships offer on-campus research opportunities for Stanford undergraduates to work with faculty on projects related to the American West. 

The projects include the research on the politics of air pollution and data analysis of self-governance by public agencies.

The current positions open are as follows:

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’ »

“The Most Western Part of the West”: 2016 Eccles Rural West Conference Focuses on Montana

Clockwise from top left: hills behind University of Montana campus; Bill Lane Center researcher Nicola Ulibarri; Bill Lane Center co-founder David M. Kennedy; U Montana psychologist Gyda Swaney; audience at keynote lunch; Kenneth Smoker of the Fort Peck Tribes and Indian Health Service; Barbara Creel, University of New Mexico; Hope Eccles, Bill Lane Center advisory council member; keynote speaker Lisa Pruitt, University of California, Davis; panel on housing and homelessness; Montana Gov. Steve Bullock; Center: Panel on Rural West Conference Montana Survey with Bruce E. Cain, Bill Lane Center for the American West; David Brady, Stanford University; Christopher Muste, University of Montana; and Sally Mauk, Montana Public Radio.

The fourth annual Eccles Rural West Conference is in the books, after a day and a half of wide-ranging conversation and debate about the past, present, and future of the rural American West. As we prepare a full report with audio and video of the sessions, a quick review of the event follows below.

The Rural West, Through a Rocky Mountain Lens

Panelists and the assembled audience members heard about Montanans' pride of place, which University of South Dakota historian Jon Lauck called "the most western part of the West." A the same time, scholars like the Washington State University sociologist Jennifer Sherman talked about challenges like the rising cost of living in increasingly affluent rural western communities, and limits of public service delivery in rural areas, a topic discussed by a number of researchers and scholars.

The historian Jen Corrine Brown, author of "Trout Culture," spoke about how Montanans adapted 40-millennia-old angling practices to turn fly fishing into an emblem of the mountain West. The University of Montana psychology professor Gyda Swaney described research connecting past conflicts – including a mass starvation faced by the Blackfoot tribe – to multigenerational health and psychological problems faced by indian populations today. The legal scholar Anthony Johnston touted Montana's 1972 state constitution – the youngest in the West – as a paragon of progressive ideals and inclusiveness towards women and minorities.

Rural West Conference Poll Explores Attitudes Toward Land Management, State's Leaders

Attendees also pondered the future of federal land management in the West, particularly in the wake of the Malheur wildlife preserve standoff in Oregon. A poll of Montana citizens administered for the Eccles Rural West Conference found that Montanans were largely split between passionately held support and condemnation of the Oregon protestors – the survey's designer, University of Montana political scientist Christopher Muste, called this the "most polarizing question in the survey." But the poll also found that a solid majority of of Montanans felt that the federal government owns too much land and should transfer some of it to the state (59% agreed).

Keynote Address by Montana Governor

The poll also showed a strong majority of Montanans strongly valuing the natural environment of the vast and beautiful rocky mountain state, a position that Gov. Steve Bullock reflected in his keynote address on the conference's second day. The 11 million tourists who come to visit the state each year, the governor said, "don't come for our Walmarts."

The conference, "People and Place in the Rural American West," was organized by the Bill Lane Center for the American West in association with the University of Montana, which hosted the event on its campus in Missoula, where blizzard-like conditions gave way to sunny and springlike weather as the conference panels convened.

Broad-Based Event Gets off to a Flying Start

In all, the event brought together over 70 scholars, journalists, lawyers, and policymakers, and was capped by keynote addresses by Gov. Bullock and the eminent legal scholar Lisa Pruitt of the University of California, Davis. The conference convened six panels altogether, and opened with a rousing address by Bill Lane Center for the American West co-founder David M. Kennedy, who took attendees on a virtual flyover tour of the emerging Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail, which will stretch from Glacier National Park (just 130 miles north of the conference), to Cape Alava on Washington's Olympic Peninsula, 1,200 miles away. Prof. Kennedy is on the US Forest Service's advisory board for the trail, and he spoke about the challenges of stitching together public access across a vast and topographically challenging region.

"The gathering proved to be an engaging and interdisciplinary conversation," said John Dougherty, a postdoctoral scholar at the Bill Lane Center for the American West, who was the primary organizer of the conference. "The rural public opinion survey was a major highlight of this year's conference, as it provided us with critical quantitative data from rural residents about how the region is being managed, and how we can work to improve the quality of life in rural communities. It's my hope that we've begun to establish an effective forum to both identify the issues and work toward solutions."

More Materials and Reports to Come

The Missoulian newspaper has a wrap-up of Governor Bullock's speech from its March 22 edition, while Missoula's KPAX television posted reports about the confernece on March 19 and 21. Montana Public Radio has published a report on the Montana survey's questions on health care.

We will soon be publishing more reports and materials from the event, including a preliminary analysis of the Rural West Conference Montana Survey, and photos, presentation decks and panel session video and audio from the conference.

Please watch the Eccles Rural West Conference website for more news, and follow @RuralWest on Twitter for details.

Faculty "Dream Team" Returns for Undergrad Course on the American West

This spring quarter, undergraduate students at Stanford will again have the opportunity to take a class as rich and wide as the region that surrounds us: the American West, a ten-week interdisciplinary course taught by instructors from five departments and two schools. 

The teaching team is a highly interdisciplinary group of distinguished faculty: political scientist Bruce E. Cain, the Charles Louis Ducommun Professor in Humanities and Sciences; Shelley Fisher Fishkin, professor of English; David Freyberg, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering; David M. Kennedy, the Center co-founder and Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History, Emeritus; and Connie Wolf, director of the Cantor Arts Center.

All of the instructors will be present throughout most of the sessions, which combines a sequence of two or three half-hour lectures with periods of discussion and debate among the students and professors, from the perspectives of their own varying academic disciplines.

Using the framework of five major western themes—borders; space; boom and bust; Native Americans; and water—the course aims to introduce students to the unique characteristics and challenges of the American West: its history, physical geography, literature, art, film, institutions, politics, economics, and particular public policy issues. 

“With lectures and readings woven around large themes, students get a truly integrated perspective on the evolution and current state of this critical and endlessly fascinating region,” says Bruce Cain, the Eccles Family faculty director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West. 

“The strengths of the course are amazing and almost as vast as the West itself," wrote Michele Marincovich of the debut offering in 2014. Marinkovich is senior advisor to the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education and the former longtime director of Stanford’s Center for Teaching and Learning. “A 'dream team' of faculty as both teachers and scholars,” she continued, “three dedicated and able course assistants, capacious and engaging themes, rich visual and textual material, and an infrastructure of support from the Lane Center”. 

As its first formal term-time course offering, the Center sees The American West as a portal to the study of the region, one that might lead students to further coursework, research, internships—and a future as leaders in the American West.

"The cultivation of future regional leaders, well-informed and engaged early in their lives with the region’s history, health, and prospects," says David M. Kennedy, "is among our cardinal aims."

Learn more on our courses on the West page »

‘Big Oil, Bad Air:’ 50 Years After the Clean Air Act, Pollution Problems Persist

Panelists at the Knight-Risser Prize Symposium on Feb .17. From left to right, Madeline Stano, Susan White, Jim Morris and the moderator, Sasha Khokha. (Photo: Steve Castillo) 

Last week, the Center and the JSK Journalism Fellowships hosted a bracing public conversation about air quality problems in western communities touched by oil and gas production. The 2016 Knight-Risser Prize Symposium at Stanford brought together the winners of the 2015 prize, Jim Morris and Susan White (of the Center for Public Integrity and InsideClimate News, respectively), with a panel that was moderated by KQED Radio's Sasha Khokha and included the environmental lawyers Madeline Stano and Danny Cullenward, a graduate of Stanford's Emmet Interdisciplinary Program on the Environment.

Following is a recap of the event, which continues on the Knight-Risser Prize website and includes the full video of the event.

Trouble breathing, recurring nosebleeds, nausea, headaches. These are the common complaints of adults and children in California, Texas and other states who live near active oil wells and natural gas fracking sites.


But it’s a hard to prove a link. Toxics monitoring is slim to none in some of these areas. Scientists can do little with only anecdotal information. Regulators are often reluctant to pressure the industry, and there is little political will – local to state – to remedy the situation.


That’s the conclusion of an environmental attorney, an energy economist and two longtime environmental journalists who discussed the legacy of the 1963 Clean Air Act at the Knight-Risser Prize Symposium at Stanford.


The symposium honors the winner of the Knight-Risser Prize for Western Environmental Journalism. This year it was “Big Oil, Bad Air,” a joint reporting project by the Center for Public Integrity, InsideClimate Newsand The Weather Channel. The 18-month project focused on the impact on air quality in one of the most active oil and gas fields in the United States, the Eagle Ford Shale of south Texas.


Read more at the Knight-Risser Prize Symposium »

Research Puts Coastal Management Under the Microscope

The California coast at Malibu

Malibu, one of the most coveted – and contentious – sites for property development along the California coast (Karol Franks via Flickr)

The controversial firing of the California Coastal Commission's executive director, Charles Lester, has led to renewed interest in the powerful but little known state regulatory agency's work. The Commission, established by the ballot measure of the Coastal Act of 1972, is charged with protecting California's iconic 1,100 mile coast, regulating development, and ensuring public access to the sea.

With responsibility for approving or rejecting new construction, property alterations, and coastal armoring measures, the Commission wields power over sensitive issues, and has faced criticism both from groups aligned with developers and with environmental concerns.

But a rigorous accounting of nearly two decades of the Commission's decisions by the Bill Lane Center's Iris Hui tells a different, less dramatic story: the Commission has approved an average of 80 percent of applications submitted, and it has typically done so with little delay. The Stanford News Service has a post today describing Hui's methodology, which utilized text-mining techniques to computer analyze a large quantity of Commission documents.

Hui web-scraped all of the commission's meeting agendas and staff reports between 1996 and 2014. In doing so, she analyzed its permit process, such as what received approval, how long the application process took, what if any permit conditions were granted, and whether the pattern changed over time. 

"The goal of the project was to use text mining to make massive paper-based government records transparent and accessible," said Hui.

As Hui pointed out, any development project within the coastal zone requires a permit, either granted by the Commission or by a local government. Commissioners have discretion in deciding what is constituted as environmental impact. An application can only be approved if it can be shown that it would not cause an "adverse environmental impact" under the California Coastal Act of 1977.

Hui's research, part of the Center's larger California Coastal Commission project, has been compiled in a working paper. The paper analyzes not just the up-or-down nature of the permit application process, but also the extensive conditions that the Commission frequently negotiates with applicants to mitigate potential harm to coastal ecosystems, communities, and public access overall.

Read more at the Stanford News Service »

Feb. 17 Symposium to Address Energy Boom's Impact on Air Quality

Knight-Risser Prize for Western Environmental Journalism

Excerpt from the poster for the upcoming Knight-Risser Prize Symposium at Stanford

Since 2008, more than 7,000 oil and gas wells have been drilled along a 400 mile long region of South Texas, with another 5,000 approved by state regulators. But while officials claim that nothing is wrong, residents who live close to oil and gas development report an alarming number of health concerns: nausea, nosebleeds, headaches, body rashes and respiratory problems.

These concerns and more were revealed by the ground-breaking investigative report "Big Oil, Bad Air" by the Center for Public Integrity, InsideClimate News and the Weather Channel. The report also found that there are no clear federal standards to protect people living near drilling sites — including children, the sick and the elderly — who are exposed to varying amounts of toxic emissions, and that Texas' air monitoring system is so flawed that the state knows almost nothing about the extent of pollution in regions like the Eagle Ford shale.

The story was the winner of the 2015 Knight-Risser Prize for Western Environmental Journalism, which is jointly administered by the Bill Lane Center for the American West and the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships at Stanford. 

On Wednesday, February 17 at Stanford, we will celebrate the award and convene the winners, Jim Morris and Susan White, together with a distinguished panel of journalists, educators, and policy experts to discuss the urgent issues highlighted by their report.

Nearly a half century after passage of the Clean Air Act, what is being done to protect the air that we breathe? This conversation is especially important in the wake of the Porter Ranch gas leak in Los Angeles and endemic air quality problems in agricultural areas like California's Central Valley.

Please join us for a frank and far-reaching conversation as we contemplate a troubling report with implications for our region and the nation.

The event will be followed by a reception with light refreshments. Guests are asked to please RSVP on the symposium page.

Read more and RSVP at the Knight-Risser Prize Symposium »

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