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.

Theodore Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch, the “Walden Pond of the West,” Threatened by North Dakota’s Oil Boom

NPR's Morning Edition today has a story by the Rural West Initiative's director, John McChesney, about the threat posed by energy development to the site of Theodore Roosevelt's North Dakota ranch. 

Theodore Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch in North Dakota is often called the “Walden Pond of the West.” But Roosevelt’s ranch today is in the midst of an oil boom that is industrializing the local landscape. Critics say a proposed gravel pit and a bridge could destroy the very thing that made such a lasting impression on Roosevelt: the restorative power of wilderness.

It’s not easy to reach the place that Roosevelt said created the best memories of his life. Over 30 miles of dirt road, then and a mile-and-a-half hike, lie between a visitor and the ranch. Roosevelt National Park Superintendent Valerie Naylor drove me out on a Sunday. We didn’t see another person at the ranch site, which sits on the banks of the Little Missouri River. 

Naylor showed me the old hand-dug well and the ranch house’s massive foundation stones, cut from granite. “That’s what’s so special about the Elkhorn ranch,” she told me, “We don’t have anything that’s reconstructed here – we just have a site and it’s the way that it was – for the most part – when Roosevelt first found it in summer of 1884. So it’s very special.”

Gold fever heats up again in California's Mother Lode

Photo: Historical Gold Rush mine, National Archives, via Flickr

California has caught gold fever again.

Gold prices are at all-time highs. Signs of a new gold rush are popping up all along Highway 49 through the Mother Lode: grizzled prospectors panning in the creeks, new underground mines preparing to go into production, rampant mining-stock speculation, boosterish media coverage and even an old-fashioned salted-mine hoax.

The timing is perfect for a new gold rush, says Jack Mitchell, publisher of the weekly Ledger Dispatch in Amador County. The economy is "sucking wind" in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, he says, and "there is a strong belief that the real gold has not been found yet."

"Today's Gold Price" is posted daily behind the front desk at the historic Holbrooke Hotel in Grass Valley: "One Ounce - $1,593.00" the sign read when I checked in a couple of weeks ago.

California's Mixing Bowl: The Delta's Crucial Role in a Thirsty State

Photo: Greg Balzer via Flickr

Our interactive digital environmental history collaboration on the Delta with KQED and the San Francisco Estuary Institute was prominently featured and called out in a story on the PBS NewsHour last night:

This is a great sign of how such good, solid, important, in-depth work can have great legs. And it is echoed by the many other ways that people keep talking about and pointing to this work, as important in itself, and as an example of the kinds of things we all should be doing more of in environmental and science communications, deeply informed by history and the humanities.

Well deserved kudos to Geoff McGhee, Creative Director for Media and Communications here at the Bill Lane Center for the American West, and our collaborators at SFEI — including former Bill Lane Center intern Alison Whipple — and our media fellow from KQED, Lauren Sommer.

Unearthing the Histories of Montana's Prairie Wildlife

By Michelle Berry
M.S. Earth Systems, 2014

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

“Immense” was the word Meriwether Lewis used consistently to describe the extent of prairie wildlife during his great transcontinental expedition; “We saw immense quantities of game in every direction around us as we passed up the river: consisting of herds of Buffalo, Elk and antelopes with some deer and wolves” (April 17th, 1805). Today, the plains are barely recognizable from the descriptions provided by Lewis. During the late 1800’s and early 1900s, the combined actions of homesteaders, fur trappers, and ranchers lead to a massive defaunation of the American prairie. Populations of bison, wolves, and grizzly bears went entirely extinct. Since 2001, the American Prairie Reserve (APR) has been working to restore the prairie ecosystem in northeastern Montana and create an educational nature reserve that will be open to the public. As part of their vision, the completed reserve will incorporate all the wildlife species that once inhabited the area in their natural abundances.

On the Alaskan Coast, Seeking Answers for Ailing Trees

Photograph: Lauren Oakes 

Lauren Oakes is a PhD student in Stanford's Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources (E-IPER). This summer, she's in Alaska researching a dieback of yellow cedar forests. In the fall of 2013, Lauren will help lead a Sophomore College course in Alaska sponsored by the Bill Lane Center for the American West. The New York Times' Green blog recently published a post from Lauren's blog, an excerpt from which we're happy to post here.

By Lauren Oakes

Along with a meter stick for measuring plants and a laser device for sizing up tree heights, Channel 9 was supposed to be one of my best friends here on the outer coast of Alaska’s Alexander Archipelago. “Before you take off, I’d like to see if I can get my radio to work!” I hollered to our captain, Zach Stenson, over the whir of the boat engine the other day. “Sure, give it a go now!” he replied. “When we hit camp, I’ll drop you all and head back.”

Zach swung the wheel left, then right, and round again, weaving through the dense bull kelp as we rode the swell up and down. I tried to keep my footing as the boat tossed from side to side. Meanwhile, I scanned channels and adjusted settings, knowing that weather reports could be crucial during our summerlong research. I’m here to study what happens after yellow cedars die, a phenomenon linked to climate change here in southeastern Alaska and British Columbia.

Fuzz. Crackle. “Nothing. I’m getting nothing,” I said. “Maybe my radio isn’t good enough.” Zach, a highly experienced fishermen from Juneau, turned some dials on his own more sophisticated setup. “Nah, mine doesn’t even work out here,” he said.

My stomach sank. My mind quickly raced through possible scenarios when the winds would dictate our plans. “Am I crazy?” I asked. “We’re going to do this without updates on wind and swell?”

“I don’t think the weather report is that accurate here anyhow,” Zach said with a smile. “Vancouver didn’t have Channel 9. You’ll make decisions as you go.”

Gone Fishin'

By Daniel Perret
B.A. in Biology, 2013

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

Yellowstone National Park is an international destination for people who love to fish, from casual stick-and-string dock anglers to hardcore wader-wearing fly-fishers. For thousands of years, people have utilized the bountiful piscine resources of the many creeks, lakes, and rivers that pepper the Yellowstone countryside.

Hang on a second! Until very recently, no evidence of prehistoric (defined as pre-1750) fishing activity has ever been found within the park. Theories abounded as to the reason. Maybe the prehistoric Native American residents of the park held a cultural taboo against fish consumption? Did they simply lack the technology to exploit the resource? Or have our best archaeological efforts simply missed the traces?

In 2006, an excavation at an important new site near the northern park boundary proved the third option correct. The excavation team found two net-sinker weights, one on each side of the Yellowstone River. The net-sinkers are heavy, impressive affairs; large, ovate river cobbles with considerable notches worked into opposite sides. Subsequent excavations of the site reached a depth of four meters, where Paleo-Indian knives were recovered, indicating that the site had been occupied as early as 10,500 years before present (YBP). Although the net-sinkers themselves probably date to the late pre-historic period (3,000 YBP – 300 YBP), they represented the first evidence of fishing ever recovered in Yellowstone.

Fast forward six years. Two park archaeologists and I are back at this important area, performing a site condition assessment. We walk transects, eyes on the ground, on the prowl for lithic artifacts and possible threats to the site. I spot a large rock that looks suspiciously out of place, eroding out of the riverbank. I pick it up, dust it off, and see that this is no ordinary rock. Another net-sinker, and the third ever recovered!

Hunting with Fire May Benefit Australia's Small Mammals

Photo: Rebecca Bliege Bird

When species start disappearing, it usually makes sense to blame it on the arrival of humans. But in the case of Western Australia's declining small-mammal populations, the opposite may be true.

The Aboriginal Martu people of Western Australia have traditionally set small fires while foraging, leaving a patchwork landscape that proves a perfect environment for bilbies, wallabies, possums and other threatened mammals.

Stanford anthropologists have discovered that when these controlled burns cease, the desert rapidly becomes overgrown – and a single lightning strike can send wildfires tearing through hundreds of square miles of tinder-dry mammal habitat.

The paper, authored by Stanford anthropology Associate Professor Rebecca Bliege Bird, senior research scientist Douglas Bird, postdoctoral scholar Brian Codding, and undergraduate Peter Kauhanen, appeared recently in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Douglas Bird and Brian Codding coordinate the Comparative Wests project at the Bill Lane Center for the American West.

Madeline Weeks Joins the Center as Program and Research Associate

We are excited to welcome a new staff member to the Bill Lane Center for the American West. Madeline Weeks is our new Program and Research Associate. She will run our summer internship program, coordinate our undergraduate research assistants, help organize events, and pursue her own independent research at the Center.

A native of Northern California, Madeline joins us after working at Morningstar Investments in Chicago. She is a 2011 graduate of Wellesley College, where she double-majored in Spanish and Economics, and wrote a senior thesis on the role of chocolate in Mexican history, religion, and culture. She also studied abroad in China, Spain, and Mexico, and spent internships at the Economist Magazine and the Institute of International Eductation.

This September, Madeline will head into the field and coordinate our Sophomore College course in Idaho, "People, Land, and Water in the Heart of the West," co-taught by Professors David M. Kennedy and David Freyberg. Over the summer she will edit posts from our interns throughout the West on our "Out West" blog. Her own research will focus on the California wine industry.

Madeline takes the reins from Heather West, who left the Center in June and will begin graduate studies this fall in environmental science and business administration at Yale University. 

Please join us in welcoming Madeline to the team, and feel free to drop by and say "howdy" at our new offices on the first floor of the Jerry Yang and Akiko Yamazaki Environment and Energy Building (Y2E2), room 174. Madeline is also reachable at

Envisioning California's Delta As It Was


California's Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta has been transformed from a teeming wetland to valuable farmland, cities and towns, and a vast network of reservoirs and canals carrying a great part of the state's water supply from where it originates to where it is needed. With the Delta's ecosystem in crisis and difficult policy decisions looming, the Bill Lane Center for the American West has co-produced an innovative interactive exploration of the historical Delta in collaboration with KQED Public Media and the San Francisco Estuary Institute-Aquatic Science Center. 

"Envisioning California's Delta As it Was" is an online companion to a series of radio reports by reporter Lauren Sommer on KQED's science and environment program, QUEST. Using more than 20 pages of interactive maps, charts and archival imagery, the feature guides readers through the wealth of historical clues that researchers at SFEI's Aquatic Science Center used to envision what the Delta was like before the Gold Rush, the creation of the rich farmlands, the State Water Project., and other major developments. SFEI's research, led by Alison Whipple, a former intern at the Bill Lane Center for the American West, is culminating in a major report on the historical ecology of the Delta, due out in June. 

This spring, QUEST reporter Lauren Sommer was a media fellow at the Bill Lane Center for the American West and worked extensively with SFEI and the Center's creative director of media and communication, Geoff McGhee, to mine the wealth of research materials to create a radio documentary and interactive guide to the report. 

The interactive feature is available at QUEST's website. A radio documentary on the historical detective work behind the report "Can We Bring Back What We've Lost?" airs Monday morning, May 14 on KQED and California public radio stations, and can be heard online at

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