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 Summer Intern Considers Human Effect on the Plains

Through the Center's internship program, Michelle Berry spent her summer at the American Prairie Reserve, a Montana-based nonprofit that acquires and manages land trusts in the West. Her research on the historical wildlife populations in northeastern Montana was featured in The National Geographic Society's NewsWatch blog.

Berry writes:

"Looking back in time, who was the top predator of the American prairie ecosystem? Wolves, grizzly bears… humans? As I continue my research of historic wildlife populations in northeastern Montana, it is important to consider how changes in human populations were affecting the ecology of this area. There was a tendency among European and American explorers to romanticize the landscapes they encountered as pristine paradises flourishing with wild animals and vegetation. In fact, this land had been inhabited by hundreds of thousands of humans that had shaped the ecosystem in variable ways."

Conservation in Action at the American Prairie Reserve

Photo: The Great Bison Range via Flickr
By Michelle Berry

M.S. Earth Systems, 2014
Summer Intern at the American Prairie Reserve

Read about our summer research projects on the OutWest 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.

Last week I made my final trip up to the prairie reserve. On the evening before I left, I went for a run to saturate my senses with the landscape. I eventually came to a valley where I decided to perch on a cottonwood tree and watch the sun go down. I closed my eyes for a few moments, and when I opened them, I saw a buffalo bull a few hundred yards in the distance that must have wandered off on his own. I then turned full circle and realized that I was surrounded by four other bulls that were quickly approaching me. I was overcome with excitement: All of the journals I had read by Lewis and Clark, Edwin Denig, George Catlin and others suddenly came alive, and I imagined an endless grass-filled landscape bursting with millions of buffalo, elk, and antelope and thousands of cougars, wolves, and bears.

In his book Last Stand, Michael Punke writes, “For emigrants traveling west, sighting the first buffalo marked a signature moment in their voyage – true arrival on the frontier”. Seeing those five buffalo that night represented a frontier for me as well. This frontier is partly physical; I come from mountains and evergreens. Before this summer I had never been to Montana nor had I seen a prairie landscape. In fact, the prairie did not immediately make a big impression on me. At first it seemed like a large expanse of barren nothingness. But then I spent time tearing down a century-old ranch corral, and created just a little more open space so that those bison can roam freely. I also spent a night driving around with a spotlight searching for black-footed ferrets, North America’s most endangered mammal. At 3:30 AM I finally saw a pair of those narrow-set, green eyes peer up at me, and I knew I was seeing one of only 750 in the wild. I came to understand that nature is often invisible to us, but those parts are no less extraordinary than the parts that are conspicuous. I now feel a closer connection to this land than any other I have ever experienced.

New Study Reconstructs the Historical Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta

Page layout from the historical ecology study (Source: San Francisco Estuary Institute Aquatic Science Center)

The California Department of Fish and Game has released a landmark historical ecology report on the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, looking at how it "has been transformed over 150 years from the largest system of wetlands on the West Coast of the United States into an expanse of farms, levees and channels that support California’s water delivery system."

The report, compiled for the state over several years by the San Francisco Estuary Institute – Aquatic Science Center, is intended to help guide efforts to improve the Delta's ecological function by creating a snapshot of how its natural systems once functioned. According to SFEI-ASC's Senior Scientist Robin Grossinger, the purpose of the study was, “not to go back, but to understand how this landscape worked so we can re-establish ecologically functional and cost-effective habitats within the contemporary landscape,” 

The report – and the research behind it – were the basis of an interactive feature co-produced by the Center, SFEI, and KQED Public Media's science and the environment program QUEST. 

The full report is available for download from the San Francisco Estuary Institute's website, or for ordering in hard copy.

Kathy Zonana Joins the Center as Associate Director

Kathy Zonana, the Center's new Associate Director, with Jon Christensen

The Bill Lane Center for the American West is pleased to welcome Kathy Zonana, who joins us as Associate Director. She succeeds Jon Christensen as the administrative head of the Center and its programs.

Zonana brings a wealth of experience to the Center, from law to journalism to academic administration. Most recently, she managed special projects for Stanford's Office of Business Affairs, working with the university's Assistant Vice President for Business Development and University Privacy Officer. Before that, she spent 13 years at the university's award-winning alumni magazine, serving as Managing Editor and Senior Web Content Editor. She is an active member of the community, working with local charities and social service organizations, including the Bay Area Outreach and Recreation Program. Zonana is also a two-time graduate of Stanford University, holding a J.D. from Stanford Law School and a B.A. in American Studies.

"Kathy Zonana is a woman of the West," said the Center's faculty director, David M. Kennedy, "and she brings to the Bill Lane Center a native westerner's passion, savvy, and creativity, as well as a wealth of experience at Stanford. She will contribute powerfully to advancing the Center's mission."

"I'm delighted to leave the Center in the able hands of Kathy Zonana and the rest of our tremendously talented and dedicated staff," said Jon Christensen, the Center's executive director. Zonana takes the reins from Christensen, who is moving to the University of California, Los Angeles, this fall, where he will take up a joint appointment in the History Department and the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. "The Center is thriving now and in a terrific position to continue making an enduring contribution to Stanford and the West," Christensen said. "I look forward to watching what comes."

Please join us in welcoming Kathy Zonana to the Center, and feel free to stop by and say "howdy!" She will begin working at the Center on Tuesday, September 4.

Center Researcher Contributes to Major Report on Climate Change in California

Photograph: Fragile Oasis via Flickr

This summer, the California Energy Commission published a major report assessing the state's vulnerability to climate change. The report looked at threats to infrastructure and human health, the effects of climate change on agriculture, water resources and wildfires, and sought to identify the most vulnerable ecosystems in the state.

Maria Santos is an ecologist and postdoctoral scholar at the Bill Lane Center for the American West.

The culmination of 18 months of work, the report brought together contributions from over 120 researchers, among them the Center's postdoctoral scholar, Maria J. Santos, who co-authored the paper "Identifying Vulnerable Species and Adaptation Strategies in the Southern Sierra of California Using Historical Resurveys."

Santos and her colleagues focused on a transect of the southern Sierra Nevadas that includes Yosemite National Park, an area whose flora and fauna had been extensively surveyed in the early to mid 20th century. By comparing present-day observations with the historic data, the team was able to see how small mammals changed their ranges over the last century. Moreover, because the Yosemite transect contains both developed and protected areas, the team was able to gauge the effect of human actions as well.

The study found that species at high altitudes reacted differently to direct and indirect effects of climate change than did those at mid and low elevations. While their most suitable habitats tended to move to lower elevations, the animals themselves tended to move to higher altitudes in response to changing conditions, suggesting that the adaptive capacity of a number of species to climate change may be limited.

Santos says that the wealth of evidence provided by the historical resurvey will make it possible to develop better models for how future climate change could impact habitats and the species that depend on them.

The complete report is available from the California Energy Commission.

California as an "Island": Finding Grains of Truth in Misbegotten Maps

Julie Sweetkind-Singer, head librarian, Branner Earth Sciences Library & Map Collections, with some of the maps depicting California as an island. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

The Stanford Libraries have acquired a trove of nearly 800 historic maps that all share one grevious error: they depict California as an island floating off of the West Coast of North America. Donated by the prominent collector Glen McLaughlin, these European and Asian maps date from the 1600s to as late as the 1860s. 

The Stanford News Service spoke to the Center's executive director, Jon Christensen, and our visiting fellow Rebecca Solinit, about how these maps – while utterly wrong – speak to something essentially right about the idea of California as an island:

According to Christensen, "Californians often think of themselves as an island. Bio-geographically, it's still very much an island," with its unique Mediterranean climate at the edge of a continent.

"California is surrounded by deserts and mountains, so much so that it might as well be an island," said Rebecca Solnit, author of Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas. "It has 2,000 species of plants found nowhere else on the Earth, as well as a lot of endemic butterflies, reptiles and other critters."

Comparative Wests: A Summer of Creating, Restoring, and Maintaining Country

The Comparative Wests Project at Yulpu in Martu Country, Western Desert, Australia, on the morning of August 18, 2012. Pictured are Stanford and Native American participants with Martu Traditional Owners from Parnngurr Aboriginal Community and Rangers from Kanyirninpa Jukurrpa. Photograph: Don Hankins.

While “country” and “nation” are sometimes used synonymously, a country has a sense of home and landscape that often distinguishes it from the more administrative phenomena that define a nation. Today, many countries persist in – sometimes in spite of – the nation states that engulf them. Emblematic among these are the Indigenous lands and societies of Western North America and Australia, where despite common assumptions of collapse, Indigenous countries fluoresce, often beneath the scope and authority of the nations that claim them.

Over the course of August, the Comparative Wests Project at the Bill Lane Center for the American West convened in Australia to initiate a comprehensive exploration of the social and ecological processes through which such countries in Western North America and Western Australia emerge, change, and persist. The project implemented a groundbreaking, multi-disciplinary program of exchange and research – assembling scholars, policy makers, artists, journalists, land managers, curators, Traditional Owners, and First Nations representatives from the American West, Canada, and Australia – to investigate the processes and implications of creating, using, transforming, restoring, and maintaining the “countries” that continue to define the Wests.

Researching at Stanford, Reflecting on American Indian Identity

Photo: Left to right: Maurice Patterson, Director, “Oriental Korein Band”; Dolores Jean McLaughlin, Hunkpapa Sioux from Fort Yates, No. Dakota, and “Queen of the Oriental Band”; Howard Keik, Mayor of Casper, Wyoming; and Howard Evans, “Captain of the Guild, Korien Temple,” at the All-American Indians Days Pageant, Sheridan, WY, 1954. Miss American Indian “Miss America” Archive, c. 1950-1960, Department of Special Collections, Stanford University

This summer, the visiting researcher Cindy Ott spent time at the Center delving into the Stanford University archives. One collection that particularly intrigued her was the papers of the Miss American Indian Pageant, which was held annually in Sheridan, Wyoming between 1953 and 1985. “They reveal surprising collaborations among American Indian communities and the Shriners who organized the pageant,” she says, “collaborations and forms of cooperation that resist simple categorizations of us vs. them, or Indian vs. non-Indian identity.”

Ott says that she was struck by images like the one above, which depicts a young contestant alongside Shriners in Orientalist attire on parade through the streets of Sheridan, as three Native Americans view them from curbside. She says that the Miss American Indian archives document through written and visual sources how an ideal American Indian woman was defined at the time, and by whom and how those determinations were made.

Ott, an assistant professor of American Studies at Saint Louis University, is working on a research project entitled “Indians Making History,” examining how American Indian communities have documented their past and perpetuated their heritage in the last half-century. Some of the questions this project raises are: What are the dynamics and mechanisms by which American Indians reconcile their own experiences in a modern globalized world with the persistently romantic expectations of what it means to be Indian? What do Indians nowadays preserve from their own lives to perpetuate Indian heritage for future generations? She especially draws on Indians’ use of photographs, food, and land preservation, and the connections among them, to explore this topic.

Examining the Past of "America's Serengeti" on

Through the Center's internship program, Michelle Berry is spending her summer at at the American Prairie Reserve, a Montana-based nonprofit that acquires and manages land trusts in the West. Recently, Michelle wrote a report describing her work mapping the boundaries of historical wildlife populations on the great plains. This week, The National Geographic Society's NewsWatch blog published her report. Berry writes:

"Today, the plains are barely recognizable from the descriptions provided by the journals of Lewis and Clark. During the 1800s a series of localized extinctions occurred across the American prairie, instigated in large part by the arrival of fur trappers (who heard about the abundance of animals encountered by the expedition) and increasing numbers of settlers (thanks to steamboats, wagon trains and railroads). An estimated 30 million bison were reduced to a few hundred, pronghorn numbered in the low thousands, and elk, along with predators like grizzlies and wolves, completely disappeared."

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