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.

An Island Is Anything Surrounded By Difference: Thoughts on Maps and History

Detail from 1700s map from the Glen McLaughlin Maps Collection at the Stanford Libraries

The author Rebecca Solnit was a visiting researcher at the Center in the Winter and Spring of 2013, exploring Stanford's newly acquired collection of historic maps that curiously depict California as an island off the West coast of North America. The maps date from the 1600s to the 1860s, and are now viewable online through the Stanford University Libraries

For those inclined toward research, there is nothing more luxurious than an invitation to delve into an archive and no more delicious territory than an extensive array of primary documents, two glories I’m still profoundly grateful Stanford offered me this year, and to which I hope to return as time permits. I feel now like an explorer who had to turn back after only catching sight of the splendors and curiosities of the terrain. I will return. That the material I focused on was astonishingly gorgeous—hundreds of maps full of compass roses, mermen splashing on seahorses, an allegorical America riding an armadillo, land masses whose edges were delicately tinted in golds and roses and greens, western places I’ve visited mingling confidently with places that don’t exist – made it all the richer. But that was frosting; the cake, or the central concept, was about California and islands.

It must have been in 2009, when I was working on my atlas of San Francisco, that the great map collector David Rumsey told me the biggest private collection of maps of California as an island was also in the Bay Area, in the hands of Glen McLaughlin. I thought that someday I would look him up and ask to see the maps, and the very idea of this trove within reach was intoxicating, magical, alluring. And then it came very much more within range when Stanford acquired the collection and made it available to me.

I had long thought that we asked the wrong question of these maps, which are usually discussed as though the most salient point is that they are wrong. To me, in other crucial ways they are right, in ways that raise resonant questions about what California is and what islands are. To me an island is anything surrounded by difference, which is why we also talk about heat islands or cultural islands, and California—a densely populated landscape of great biological diversity and richness surrounded by ocean, desert and mountains, beyond which lie starker realms—is all kinds of island, or archipelago.

Exposé of Federal Predator Overkill Wins Knight-Risser Prize

Leg-hold traps are used to capture and kill animals such as coyotes. photo: Steve Thompson/US Fish and Wildlife Service

Tom Knudson and the Sacramento Bee have been named winners of the 2013 Knight-Risser Prize for Western Environmental Journalism for the investigative series “The Killing Agency,"  about a little-known federal government agency whose "brutal methods leave a trail of animal death.”

Tom Knudson

The $5,000 prize honors excellence in reporting on environmental issues in the North American West, and is jointly administered by the Center and the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships at Stanford.

The Bee's 2012 project examining Wildlife Services focuses on a a U.S. Department of Agriculture agency whose strategy for controlling animals deemed of risk to livestock and the public has killed millions of predators and other species across the West, often in ways that are inhumane, excessive and at odds with science.

It shows how the wide-scale killing of coyotes has proven ineffective and can backfire biologically by contributing to population explosions of prey species, such as rabbits and rodents. And it describes the indiscriminate nature of the agency’s traps, snares and poison, which have caused the often tortuous deaths of many thousands of non-target animals over the decades, including family pets and such rare, protected species as bald and golden eagles.

The series also tracks a long history of unsuccessful efforts at reform ––and two western congressmen’s current mission to revive those efforts.

“It’s a great example of a regional paper doing something really ambitious,” said David Yarnold, one of the judges and president and CEO of the National Audubon Society. The series and its use of Freedom of Information requests “reflect our best investigative traditions.”

The judges also gave a Special Recognition citation to the series “Clean Water: The Next Act"” by Robert McClure and Jason Alcorn of InvestigateWest and the staff of EarthFix.

The prize will be awarded at the 2014 Knight Risser Prize Symposium, to be held at Stanford early next year.

Reflecting on a Busy Summer Researching Election Laws

By Yoseph Desta
B.S. Political Science Research Honors Track, 2014
Summer Intern at 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.

My summer working at the NCSL was an amazing and enriching experience. For the past ten weeks I worked in the Legislative Management department of the NCSL, where I had the opportunity to work alongside passionate and dedicated policy experts and become immersed in the fascinating world of state politics and election law.

To say that I’ve learned a lot about election law would be an understatement. Take, for instance, my most recent research projects this summer. In the past weeks alone, I was asked to write an article and create a webpage on preregistration of youth voters, create 50-state reports on requirements for poll workers and polling places, and respond to an information request regarding campaign contributions from PACs. These topics, although only a brief glimpse into my research this summer, illustrate just how broad and diverse election laws and research requests regarding these laws can be. Moreover, with 2013 bringing a slew of election law changes at the national level (e.g. the Supreme Court’s Voting Rights Act decision) and state level (e.g. North Carolina’s recently passed elections bill), the research that I have conducted with the NCSL Elections Team has been constantly evolving and expanding.

Seeking Research Assistants for Historical Photography Exhibition

We are pleased to offer a new internship opportunity for undergraduate students over the fall and winter quarters: a research assistantship related to an upcoming exhibition at the Cantor Arts Center on the 19th-century western photographer Carleton Watkins. More details and application information follow below.

The Bill Lane Center for the American West, in collaboration with the Cantor Arts Center and the Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis (CESTA), seeks to hire a team of undergraduate research assistants to help produce a series of digital, interactive maps that will accompany the exhibition Carleton Watkins: The Stanford Albums at the Cantor. The exhibition, opening in April 2014, features Watkins’ mid- to late-nineteenth-century photographs of the American West from Stanford Libraries’s Special Collections. The collaboration between the Bill Lane Center, the Cantor, and CESTA grew out of a mutual interest in illustrating the importance of Watkins’ photography to early cartography and the role that geographic exploration played in employing Watkins and other photographers of the era. The cartographic accompaniments to the exhibition will illustrate elements of Watkins’ life and spatial elements of the photos on view in the exhibition. These accompaniments will take multiple forms including interactive technology as well as simple graphics. 

The research assistants will aid in the research and production of the cartographic accompaniments to the exhibition. Research assistants will have the opportunity to learn about the elements of planning and mounting an exhibition and to assist with museum tasks related to the cartographic work. Research assistants will also participate in seminar-style discussions with the team at the Bill Lane Center and the Cantor (topics will highlight the intersections of art and science, especially as derived from Watkins’ relevance to the history of photography and geography of the Pacific Coast as well as museum concerns including display and conservation of photographs). A background in geography, history, photography, art history, design, UI design, and/or communication is preferred, but not required. Students should demonstrate skill in Adobe Flash, Illustrator, Photoshop, and/or ESRI's ArcGIS. We are seeking responsible team players and clear communicators who meet deadlines reliably. The position requires approximately 8-10 hours per week during fall quarter, with the potential to continue during winter quarter, at $15/hour.

To apply: send resume and cover letter to Minh Chau Ho, Program Associate, at by Sunday, October 13th.  Contact her with questions via email or (650) 721-2569.

Historical Detectives at Work

Image: Watercolor map of the Tijuana River, courtesy of Stamen Designs

By Rachel Powell
B.S. Biology, 2013
Summer Intern at 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.

It is hard to believe that my summer internship at the San Francisco Estuary institute is over, or that I managed to accomplish so much in just 10 weeks. I worked on several ongoing projects during my time at SFEI this summer, one of which I mentioned in my last post—a study on the extent of tidal influence in Bay Area creeks, which I participated in by helping with field work and writing a literature review for the final report. I also collected and read sources for the Tijuana River historical ecology study, wrote parts of a historical ecology report on the north San Diego county lagoons, went on a site visit to the John Muir National Monument in Martinez, CA (soon to be the subject of a historical ecology study), and mapped coastal waterways for the South Coast wetland change analysis.

The Historical Ecology team at SFEI works on a number of projects at any given time, some which are very large and span several years (San Diego lagoons, Tijuana River), and others which are on a much smaller time scale (John Muir, Novato Creek). During my internship I had the opportunity to participate in nearly all of their current projects, doing a wide range of tasks which gave me a sense of how the typical historical ecology study progresses from start to completion. They first gather a wide range of historical documents and current scientific research relevant to their study area, then use these sources to build a textual description of what the historical landscape looked like. In addition, they use historical maps, past and current aerial imagery, and photographs to map with a high degree of certainty where different habitat types existed 200 years ago, and where they are found today.

Finding Myself in Yellowstone

Image: Backpacking in Glacier National Park.

By Maddie Graham
B.S. Biomechanical Engineering, 2015
Summer Intern at Yellowstone National Park

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.

It is amazing how fast time flies. During my drive home from a summer spent in Yellowstone National Park I began tearing up, but I wasn’t quite sure why. I will definitely miss the people I met and the park, but I realized that the biggest reason for the tears was because of how fast the summer went. There were so many things still to do and see, so hopefully I can return someday soon. Similarly, everyone says that we need to enjoy college because it goes fast, and it truly does! I am already halfway done with my time at Stanford and there are still so many things left to explore. This summer was an experience of a lifetime and I am so thankful for the opportunity to work in Yellowstone. I discovered a newfound love of the outdoors and an appreciation for the history of our national parks.

This summer, the majority of my job was spent cataloging artifacts to add to the growing collection of Yellowstone memorabilia, as well as lead tours of the facility. During these tours, numerous people asked me why I chose to work at the heritage and research center if I was majoring in biomechanical engineering. Although engineering is very different from museum and curatorial work, I actually learned a lot about myself and what I might want to do following my time at Stanford. My summer job taught me how to be proactive, seeking out and finding projects to do and new items to catalog. I learned how to get along with coworkers and really reach out and get to know new people. The experiences I had this summer were not limited to the research center, but actually extended to my living situation in the YCC dorm and the relationships I formed with the other park service employees I met there. It is amazing how all walks of life came together to work in Yellowstone National Park; I met some interesting people and heard some great stories. Through it all, though, I learned the importance of being true to yourself and holding strong to your beliefs, but also getting out of your comfort zone and trying new things.

Where the Wild Things Were

Image: Bisons, perhaps the most iconic of APR’s wildlife, and the most impressive example of the work they have accomplished in the past decade. APR now has 270 bison, two of which are pictured here.

By Katie Kramon
B.S. Earth Systems and Modern Languages minor, 2015
Summer Intern at American Prairie Reserve

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.

Greetings from Bozeman, Montana, where the distant mountains just got their first dusting of snow, the leaves are beginning to change, and the air is taking on the crispness of autumn. I’ve had a fantastic beginning to my internship with the American Prairie Reserve—devoted to the creation of a wildlife refuge that will protect and allow access to the pristine prairie landscape of Northeastern Montana. The reserve has made rapid and impressive progress since its’ founding in 2001, when the need to protect the perhaps less famed but equally important prairie landscape revealed itself. We now own and lease a total of 274,000 acres of deeded and public land. Their goal is to link public and private lands in the region into the largest wildlife reserve in the lower 48, and create an unimpeded natural landscape similar to what existed in the days of Lewis and Clark.

As the Historical Wildlife Populations Intern for APR, I have spent much of my office time so far immersed in the tales of that visionary pair. They kept copious notes on their travels, and especially on their encounters with wildlife--which were not occasional. Between about March and July 1805, they crossed the region now home to the American Prairie Reserve. Their journals are an invaluable and unrivaled lens into what wildlife looked like on the Montana plains two hundred years ago—before hunting and habitat destruction drastically reduced populations. Their accounts serve as some of our only windows into the state of the land at that time—when few records were kept, and much of the American prairie remained unexplored and untouched. The prevalence of wildlife in their accounts is astounding—especially when compared to what remains today. Hardly a day goes by that they don’t mention spotting a grizzly, buffalo, or elk, a beaver, a wolf, a fox. On April 22, 1805, Lewis described “I had a most delightfull view of the country, the whole of which except the vally formed by the Missouri is void of timber or underbrush, exposing to the first glance of the spectator immence herds of Buffaloe, Elk, deer, and Antelopes feeding in one common and boundless pasture.” A couple weeks later, they wrote “Great numbers of Buffalow, Elk, Deer, antelope, beaver, Procupins, and water fowls seen to day, such as, Geese, ducks of dift. Kinds, and a few swan.”

Appreciating the Human Element in Land Conservation

Image: Nancy Vail and Jered Lawson of Pie Ranch -- a farm that POST helped to protect -- are just a few of the members of the human ecosystem that POST constantly interacts with. Photo Credit: Anne Duwe, POST.

By Caroline Hodge
B.A. Psychology and B.A. Philosophy & Religious Studies, 2013
Summer Intern at Peninsula Open Space Trust

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.

When you hear the term land conservation you might think of well, land: mountains, rivers, valleys, and wildlife. Perhaps you might guess that working in land conservation involves activities such as monitoring plant populations, counting birds, and maintaining trails.

My time at the Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST) this summer, however, illustrated that actual land conservation work is far more complex. While biologic factors such as topography and watersheds are important, what might be even more essential are the ecosystems of human forces that help protect, maintain, and utilize the land. My colleagues and I at POST were in constant communication with various nodes of this human system: officials at the California State Park system, ranchers interested in leasing POST land, contractors assessing buildings on POST land, and landowners interested in conserving their land. It is through these interactions and relationships—some of which have been built over the course of decades—that POST has been able to achieve its mission of protecting and caring for land in and around Silicon Valley.

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