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.

Call for Participants: Rural West Conference in October 2012

Photograph: Native American Woman with Basket of Huckleberries. OSU Archives WilliamsG:USFS281580 via Flickr Commons    

Building on the work of the Rural West Initiative, the Bill Lane Center for the American West will hold a conference titled "The Rural West: Toward a Regional Approach to Common Issues." Scholars, journalists, policymakers, and others are invited to propose papers for the conference, which will be held October 12-14, 2012 at the David Eccles Conference Center in Ogden, Utah.

Ecological Urbanism for the 21st Century

Photo by Cait Bermuhler

In the age-old cultural ebb and flow between city and country, the city has made a remarkable turnaround. Not so long ago, cities were seen as a cancer that would have to be contained if we were to save the planet. Now cities are more often portrayed as the best solution to what ails life on earth.

Even more remarkably, this turn has taken place at the same time as a crucial demographic shift: Globally, more people now live in cities than in the countryside. During a similar transition in England in the 19th century, there was a romantic cultural turn to the pastoral, as Raymond Williams observed in his classic The Country and the City. In the United States, in the early 20th century, this demographic transition was marked by President Theodore Roosevelt's creation of a Commission on Country Life amid profound cultural angst about the fate of rural America.

We've come a long way from the Roosevelt commission's concern with the "deficiencies" of country life, although the Obama administration recently created a White House Rural Council to "address challenges in rural America." To be sure, we still hear plenty of paeans to that "real America," though only one out of five Americans lives there now, as well as to "wild nature," though most ecologists have come to accept that virtually nothing about nature is untouched by humanity.

The dominant discourse these days, however, unabashedly celebrates the city as the future, in books with titles such as David Owen's Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability (Riverhead, 2009) and Edward Glaeser's Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier (Penguin Press, 2011).

We share much of their excitement and optimism, but we are wary of this urban triumphalism. We worry that it is blinding us to problems as well as to opportunities for understanding the vital relationship between the country and the city, and right at a time ripe for innovation in the academic fields most concerned with this relationship, particularly urban planning and ecology.

First Annual Graduate Student Conference on the North American West

Grand Canyon National Park, Photo by Lauren E. Oakes

Does your research focus on art, culture, history, politics, economics, geography, environment, technology, or science in western North America? The Bill Lane Center for the American West invites you to present your research and meet graduate students from other fields whose work also focuses on western issues.

Please join us on Friday, February 17 at 9:30am for the first annual graduate student conference on the North American West. The conference will include student presentations, a poster session and networking reception, plus lunch and a faculty keynote by Barton H. “Buzz” Thompson, Robert E. Paradise Professor in Natural Resources Law and Perry L. McCarty Director, Woods Institute for the Environment.

You are invited to attend the conference regardless of whether you wish to present research this year. If you would like to give a talk or present a poster, you will be asked to submit an abstract. Applications for presentations will close at midnight on Wednesday, February 1, and participants will be notified by Monday, February 6.

Railroad Hyperbole Echoes Down to the Dot-com Frenzy

Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way, Currier & Ives lithograph, 1868

There are critics and readers who say American historian Richard White should not have made fun of rich people in his new book, Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America.

"I don't make fun of rich people," White told a standing-room-only crowd at Cubberley Auditorium on campus recently. "I just quote other people making fun of rich people."

Take Leland Stanford, for example. The Stanford Historical Society, one of the sponsors of the event, has as one of its missions to study and understand "the ideals of the university's founders." Rarely if ever has the university's founder gotten such a drubbing at one of the society's gatherings. Stanford knew nothing about railroads, nor did any of the railroad barons, according to White.

But Stanford and his partners certainly knew how to get money out of Congress and other people, White said, and that gift proved priceless. White, the Margaret Byrne Professor of American History and faculty co-director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West, said he began the book 12 years ago knowing only that he wanted to write something about the American West and railroads. "I had no idea what I was getting into," he said. He was unprepared for what he found in the archives.


2012 Summer Internships in the West for Stanford Students

Emerald Bay, Lake Tahoe. Photo by Stephen Matthew Hunt

We are excited to announce a diverse set of summer internship offerings for Stanford students this year. The internships are now posted online at, with full details on the positions, application process, eligibility, and our partnering organizations.

Three new positions are available this summer with American Prairie Foundation, Heyday, and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Interns at these organizations will be working on projects ranging from examining historical wildlife populations on the northern Great Plains of Montana to evaluating federal relicensing of dams in the west. In addition, we continue to offer internships with the National Park Service and local collaborators, including the San Francisco Estuary Instiute. To learn more about the work of past summer interns, please visit our student blog: Out West.

The application deadline is Tuesday, February 7th.

Adapting to Dry Times: The Role of the Media in an Increasingly Arid West

Poster image for the Knight-Risser Prize Symposium on Jan. 25 at Stanford (More details)

As the fast-growing American West faces a future of increasing water shortages, how can the media play a role in interesting readers in a subject that most of them take for granted — safe, clean and cheap water?

In 2011, the Denver magazine 5280 published "Dry Times," a comprehensive, beautifully designed report on Colorado's overstretched water supplies. Last fall, the story was awarded top honors by the Knight-Risser Prize for Environmental Journalism, a prize that is administered at Stanford by The John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships and the Bill Lane Center for the American West. 

According to the contest judges, 5280 hit the "holy grail" of explanatory journalism — making a complex and potentially dull topic easy to grasp and fun to read.

On Wednesday, January 25 at 4:30pm, join us for an award presentation and lively discussion with the story's authors, Natasha Gardner and Patrick Doyle, about innovative ways that journalists can engage readers on vital water issues. Moderating the panel will be the Center's faculty co-director and Stanford History Professor Emeritus David M. Kennedy, as well as Andrew Fahlund, the new Executive Director of our Water in the West project, and Sasha Khokha of KQED's California Report, who was part of a team that received the judges' special citation for a report on nitrate contamination in California water supplies.

The panel discussion will be preceded by a reception with drinks and hors d'oeuvres and a gallery presentation of "Dry Times." For more information and to RSVP, please see the event page on our website.

Where Has All the Water Gone? A dozen sophomores go deep into the Grand Canyon to examine the river that waters the West.

Stanford Sophomore College Students on the Colorado River

Buzz Thompson is one of the world’s leading authorities on water rights, and he has special expertise on laws governing the Colorado River. But at this moment, on a blistering day in early September, somewhere around mile 24 between Lee’s Ferry and Diamond Creek, the Stanford law professor’s primary interest in the river is getting the hell out of it.

He is clinging to the side of a raft, buffeted by churning water, his hat and sunglasses somehow still attached after he was deposited into the freezing, frothy mix by a heavy wave moments earlier. Thompson drags his lanky frame, soaked and dripping, up and into the boat, landing in a heap at the feet of his fellow paddlers, mostly undergraduates, in the eight-person craft. He gathers himself and sits up, smiling. The boat erupts in a cheer. Thompson is the first person in this party to “swim.” He will not be the last.

Thompson, ’73, MBA ’75, JD ’76, is here with 12 Stanford students, three other faculty and three teaching assistants as part of a Sophomore College course titled Water in the West. They are three days into a two-week, 225-mile journey through the Grand Canyon.

The brainchild of David Kennedy, ’63, professor of history emeritus and co-director of the Bill Lane Center for the West, which sponsored the trip, this was one of 19 Sophomore College courses this year and the first to ply the Colorado River. It aimed to immerse students in the political, social and geographical issues surrounding the use and distribution of water in the western United States.

Unraveling a Historical Western Mystery, With Help From Interactive Mapping and Media

Photograph by Lena Herzog

Writer Jeremy Miller has used a media fellowship at the Center this year to dig deeper into a historical mystery: how could a highly respected explorer, cartographer and artist – known for pioneering modern techniques for representing topography on maps – have gotten his illustrations of the western landscape so hopelessly wrong?

Friedrich von Egloffstein was a German aristocrat who was one of the first white men to reach the floor of the Grand Canyon, while on Joseph Christmas Ives’ landmark expedition of 1857 to 1858. Egloffstein's maps are still considered masterworks, but his drawings and etchings have drawn ridicule, dismissed by the writer Wallace Stegner and others as the feverish product of a European overwhelmed by a dramatic and alien landscape.

Using digital tools to align Egloffstein's maps to present-day land features, Miller was able to revisit points along the explorer's travels and hone a dramatic new theory, which Harper's Magazine has published in its January 2012 issue: that the illustrations long associated with the Grand Canyon exploration had in fact been done years earlier on a separate trip through another so-called "Grand Cañon" in present-day Colorado, where the steep and severe scenery closely matches a stretch of the Gunnison River. 

To help tell a complex story of a body of work largely lost to history, rife with mistaken identities and mismatched locations, Geoff McGhee, our creative director of media and communiations here at the Center, worked with Miller to create an interactive companion to his article, which is available on the Harper's website.

The interactive maps let readers explore the route of the Grand Canyon expedition and see for themselves how poorly the engravings published in Ives’ 1861 report resemble the area we know today. Then a second map follows the earlier, largely forgotten expedition down the Gunnison River, where readers can click to see Egloffstein's work compared with images taken for the story by the landscape photographer Lena Herzog. 

The images, which show a striking resemblance, may not be the last word in the debate, but Miller's reporting sheds new light on a fascinating and misunderstood figure who played a significant role in the mapping of the American West.

Upcoming Event
Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Real Rural: Stories from the Rest of California

Celebration of Project Launch

California Historical Society

Come celebrate with beverages and hors d’oeuvres at the California Historical Society
Open to the Public
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