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.

Discovering America’s Wonderland

Image: Deb Guernsey, Maddie Graham, and Caitlin Gill pose in front of an exhibit they designed for the Lake Hotel in Yellowstone 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.

I love the outdoors and hiking, so when I heard about the curatorial internship in Yellowstone National Park I was thrilled. This would be a new experience for me and I looked forward to learning more about the world’s first national park. I wasn’t quite sure what I would find, but so far it has exceeded any expectations I may have had. There is so much variety in landscape and places to visit! I am worried I won’t have enough time to see everything before my time is up here in America’s “Wonderland.”

Upon arrival, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that my coworker and I were both from western Washington. The two of us have had a great time joking about the intense thunder storms that roll through here compared to the drizzle we get back home. Our main job at the Heritage and Research Center is to catalog new artifacts to be added to the collection. There are about 400,000 Yellowstone related artifacts stored in a giant warehouse that only a few of us have access to. During our first week we explored the room, looking for places to house future objects. You wouldn’t believe the stuff we found! A researcher could find anything from old uniforms, to invitations and postcards from the late 19th century, to huge pieces of furniture and taxidermied animals. No matter how many times I walk back there, I don’t think I will ever be comfortable with the stuffed bear watching me from the middle of the room. My favorite discovery, though, being a competitive athlete, was an Olympic torch from the 2002 Olympics when the athletes ran through the park.

The best part about working here is being able to handle so many historical artifacts. The other day I cataloged an invitation to an officers’ ball from 1896 when the military was still in the park.  I love learning new things about the park and reliving what tourists experienced a hundred years ago through the items they left behind. This week we even designed an exhibit for the Lake Hotel, searching for articles that could give visitors a general overview of the hotel’s history and take them back in time to see what it was like for tourists in the early twentieth century. Sometimes we have researchers call in requesting copies of certain scrapbooks and photographs, so I enjoy going on scavenger hunts to retrieve the items because they provide opportunities to make new discoveries about the history of the Park. There is so much I have yet to learn and I can’t wait to see what the rest of my time here brings!

Read more at the Out West Blog for Summer Interns » 

Echoes of the Western U.S. in Australia, and Vice-Versa, in Water and Culture

Excerpt from May 1988 issue of Sunset Magazine with a dispatch from the then-Ambassador to Australia L.W. "Bill" Lane, Jr.

Dr. Ruth Morgan is a lecturer and researcher in Australian History at Monash University in Melbourne. She recently spent three months at the Center as a visiting scholar

The bleary-eyed drive down Highway 101 from San Francisco to Palo Alto brought me to the end of a long journey from Melbourne, Australia. Just a couple of days into the new year, I was already ready for winter again and the chilly air provided a welcome relief from the soaring temperatures of the Australian summer.

My visit to the Bill Lane Center for the American West coincided with the long summer break for Australian university students. I was looking forward to sinking my teeth into some new research and touching base with some familiar faces at Stanford. I arrived at the Center with two projects in mind – first, to undertake a comparative study of the drying climates of southwestern Australia and the United States; and second, to explore the influence of Sunset magazine on Australian readers in post-war era. It did not take long for me to realize that I had perhaps been somewhat ambitious in my plans. Nevertheless, I seized the opportunity to conduct preliminary research and to gain a sense of the scale of work necessary to develop these projects further.

A comparative study of the southwest of Australia and the United States had been brewing for some time. During my graduate studies, I had been fortunate to attend several meetings with scholars from Stanford University and The University of Western Australia on the topic of Comparative Wests. In my dissertation, I had explored the environmental history of water in southwestern Australia, which is currently experiencing a drying trend. As water lies at the center of so many histories of the American West, I saw great potential for comparing and contrasting the changing understandings and management of water resources in these regions. Conversations with Doug Bird, Andrew Fahlund and Richard White helped me to develop my ideas further and introduced me to the enormous literature on water in the American West.

Towards the end of my visit, I presented some of my thoughts and ideas about the study at a seminar in the History Department where I shared the challenges of comparing two similar, yet disparate parts of the world. Although they differ starkly in their economic, demographic and political development, these regions are both undergoing similar climate trends and rely enormously on fossil fuels. Similarly, southwestern Australia and the southwest United States share an ‘urban denial’ or ‘countrymindedness,’ a reliance on groundwater reserves, and until relatively recently, an unqualified faith in the wisdom of water engineers. I expect further work on this comparative study will not only reveal the flow of ideas and expertise about water resources across the Pacific, but also similar patterns in the way Australians and Americans in the West have rendered themselves vulnerable to water scarcity and climate variability.

During my two-month visit, I also burrowed into the stacks of the Cecil H. Green Library and its Special Collections to find traces of Sunset magazine’s presence in Australia. Although I was aware that the magazine had an Australian readership at the turn of the twentieth century, I was pleasantly surprised to find Sunset was reporting on Australia from as early as 1915.

Courtesy of Geoff McGhee’s kind introductions, I was fortunate to receive a guided tour of the magazine’s Menlo Park offices and gardens by Editor-at-Large Peter Fish. Both Peter and Garden Editor Kathy Brenzel alerted me to Sunset’s historic interest in Australia’s xeric gardens and bushfire management, particularly since the 1980s. Through Peter, I met with former Sunset editor Dan Gregory at his home in San Francisco, where he generously shared with me his extensive knowledge about the architectural connections between Australia and the West Coast. Who would have thought that Cliff May ranch houses could be found across Australia, or that Australian architect Robin Boyd had served on the judging panel for Sunset’s Western Homes Award in 1965?

I shared my preliminary findings about Sunset magazine at one of the Bill Lane Center’s Winter Seminars on the West. In the paper, titled ‘Western living down under,’ I explored the changing representations of Australia in Sunset from a ‘younger America’ in the Pacific to a tourist destination for wealthy Americans. This shift largely reflected the interests of the Lane family in promoting the Pacific as a region of growing economic importance. Meanwhile, Sunset offered a medium for a trans-Pacific conversation about Western living, especially its architecture and its design. As I develop this project further, I hope to situate the influence of Sunset in a broader transnational story of Australia’s post-war suburban development.

At the end of my visit, I was fortunate to leave the Center on a ‘high note’ by putting pen to paper on a publishing contract with University of Western Australia Publishing for my monograph Running Out?, which will be published in late 2014.

I can’t thank the friendly folks at the Bill Lane Center enough for making me feel so welcome during my visit. My sincere thanks to David Kennedy, Kathy Zonana, Laura Ma, Geoff McGhee, Ted Melillo, Kevin Hearle, Sarah Keyes, and Madeline Weeks for their kindness and support during my stay. 

Happy Trails, Laura Ma

From managing our budget and shaping our strategic plan, to organizing events and driving the Stanford to the Sea "SAG wagon," Laura Ma has been the vital staff member, colleague and friend who has kept the Bill Lane Center for the American West on track for three excellent years. 

As our financial and administrative manager, Laura has had a knack for asking the right questions, keeping things moving and making sure everyone felt heard. And we never lacked for good food with Laura around, either.

We're sad to see Laura move on this week, as she becomes the department administrator for Stanford's Department of English, but we are proud and excited for her to take on such a prestigious assignment. We take heart in knowing that we have a solid foundation to work from, and that she will be close by every day.

We wish her the best, and know that Laura, her husband Eugene and daughter Emilie will always be a part of our western family. Please join us in wishing Laura happy trails!

The Perils of a Professionalized Military

With the Afghan war in its 12th year and continuing calls for intervention in Syria, what truly ails the American military? According to the Center's faculty director, David M. Kennedy, it is that the end of the draft and compulsory military service has isolated the nation's fighting forces from the rest the population, and tempted presidents to view them as a mercenary force, ready to be deployed without the broad repercussions of conscripting the general public. 

Prof. Kennedy discussed this and other issues confronting the modern American military, and his new book of the same name, at the Commonwealth Club of California in San Francisco on June 3. In a lecture and Q&A moderated by John Diaz, editorial page editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, Prof. Kennedy discussed the end of the draft, the paucity of US legislators who have served in the military – or whose children have served – and the remarkable discrepancy between the number of times that the United States has formally declared war (4) and the number of military actions it has engaged in (over 400 since the nation's founding). 

The book the Modern American Military was released this month by Oxford University Press. The full audio of the event is available as a podcast from the Commonwealth Club:

Journal Surveys the Comparative Wests

Pupunya Tula artist Patrick Tjungurrayi names the waterholes that became wells in his painting Canning Stock Route Country. (Photograph by Tim Acker, 2007, courtesy of FORM, Canning Stock Route Project.)

The Comparative Wests project is a collaboration of the Bill Lane Center for the American West and scholars at Stanford, the University of Western Australia, and around the North American West and Australia. Together, the researchers seek to examine the commonalities and differences among former settler colonies in western Canada, the United States, and the western Pacific including Australia and the Pacific Islands, and the rapid cultural, economic and environmental transformations they experienced.

This spring, a collection of research papers from the Comparative Wests has been published in the journal Occasion, an imprint of the Stanford digital humanities collective Arcade

The lead essay, "An Introduction to the Comparative Wests," provides a quick overview and framing of the researchers' approach:

Historically understood as distant from the centers of colonial and national political and economic power, we understand these Wests to be at the center of some of modernity’s most fraught struggles. In the essays that follow, these Wests are homes from which we travel and to which we return, places we visit, and in which we hope to permanently remain. The Wests we compare are sites of cosmological centeredness for some, as well as spaces of epistemological, ontological, and geopolitical struggle for all. We hope that the methodology of approaching these regions and their histories as “Comparative Wests” opens up spaces for thinking through, and beyond, the practices, contests, and legacies of settler colonialism.

The journal collects papers presented at the project's January 2012 gathering at Stanford of historians and archaeologists, anthropologists and indigenous studies scholars, architects and art historians, lawyers and land planners, hailing from North America and Australia. They cover a range of subject matter: the environmental legacy of historical contacts between settlers and indigenous populations, such as the carving of cattle driving paths through Aboriginal Australian lands; land use by the North Fork Mono tribe in California; images of the "cowboy" in both North American and Australian contexts, where it was widely adopted by indigenous peoples working on settler "stations" or ranches; the role of commercial interests like shippers in influencing and shaping migration and immigration patterns and policies; the role of fire in indigenous landscape management and how land managers are giving ancient techniques a fresh look. 

The publication is entirely free online and can be read on the web or downloaded in print-ready PDF format.

Drawing Lessons from a Mexican Groundwater Saga

The environmental historian Mikael Wolfe has published a sobering account of land reform, environmental stewardship and economic development gone wrong in North-Central Mexico. Published in the journal Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos, Prof. Wolfe's article looks at the arid Comarca Lagunera – or "La Laguna" – region of Durango and Coahuila states, which was turned into an agricultural and dairy powerhouse between the 1930's and 1960's by the extensive use of powerful electric pumps (like the one in the 1961 advertisement above). Despite the repeated warnings of water engineers over many years – as well as frequent prohibitions on pumping – the region saw the vast overdraft of groundwater resources and concomitant pollution by naturally occurring salts and toxins like arsenic. 

At a time when undertakings like the Center's Water in the West Project seek to identify best practices and metrics for groundwater management, Prof. Wolfe's account is a reminder that good information alone is no guarantee of sound management practices when it is placed in competition with other factors:

[The] concatenation of social, economic, political, and ecological forces, and not lack of awareness or concern among at least some experts even in a "pre-environmentalist" era (prior to the 1980s), is, I contend, what rendered groundwater conservation almost impossible in twentieth-century Mexico – a legacy that tragically persists to this day.

– Mikael Wolfe, "The Historical Dynamics of Mexico’s Groundwater Crisis in La Laguna: Knowledge, Power and Profit, 1920s to 1960s"

Prof. Wolfe, who is an Assistant Professor of History at Stanford and a member of the Center's faculty committee, is working a book-length version of his research entitled Watering the Revolution: The Technopolitical Success and Socioecological Failure of Agrarian Reform in La Laguna, Mexico.

On Memorial Day, Considering the Volunteer Military

Photo: Sha Sha Chu via Flickr

Amid the remembrances of the nation's war dead on Memorial Day, The New York Times has published an op-ed co-written by Center faculty director David M. Kennedy and Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry (retired) that reflects on our all-volunteer fighting force and the problems it poses for American culture and democracy – and for the military itself: 

"...The greatest challenge to our military is not from a foreign enemy — it’s the widening gap between the American people and their armed forces. ... For nearly two generations, no American has been obligated to join up, and few do. Less than 0.5 percent of the population serves in the armed forces, compared with more than 12 percent during World War II. Even fewer of the privileged and powerful shoulder arms. In 1975, 70 percent of members of Congress had some military service; today, just 20 percent do, and only a handful of their children are in uniform."

The authors also collaborated on Prof. Kennedy's upcoming book, The Modern American Military, which collects the perspectives of a distinguished group of scholars and military minds on the state of the United States' armed forces. The book will be released by the Oxford University Press in June.

Deputy Secretary of the Interior Urges Land Managers to See the Big Picture


The Honorable David J. Hayes, who as Deputy U.S. Secretary of the Interior has oversight over major governmental land management agencies, delivered a speech to the Center on campus in late April. In drawing on his long experience from two stints in the role during the Clinton and Obama administrations, Deputy Secretary Hayes sought to describe a group of agencies that have been hampered by budget cuts and political divisions, and that might be tempted to think and act small. Instead, said Hayes, those institutions should use an integrated management approach that links local-level projects to larger-scale plans, and that balance the competing interests of conservation and economic activity.

Looking at federal institutions that are collectively responsible for some of the nation's grandest projects, from dams and reservoirs to national parks and wildlife refuges, Hayes said,

...We can still think and act on a big scale when it comes to managing our nation’s lands for the future. Simply put, a number of forces are emerging and pushing back against the all-too-familiar, recent pattern of ignoring resource conflicts until they blow up into unmanageable disasters that chop up our lands and the precious resources that they hold for all Americans. 

Hayes went on to outline those factors and their reasons for adopting a more holistic approach to land and resource management, among them: large-footprint energy projects like oil, gas, wind and solar installations and electricity transmission lines; ensuring habitat protection for key wildlife species; reacting to larger and more frequent extreme weather events like Hurricane Sandy; and the technological possibilities offered by remote satellite sensing and surveying.

Deputy Secretary Hayes, who is a graduate of Stanford Law School, will be returning to the West Coast this summer after he steps down from the Department of the Interior. He will take a teaching post at the Law School and will be a senior fellow at the Hewlett Foundation.

"Year of the Bay" Project Leads Wave of Humanities Crowdsourcing

The Stanford News Service today has a story looking at three creative examples of crowdsourced humanities scholarship, led by "Year of the Bay," a collaboration among the Center, Stanford's Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis, the California Historical Society, scholars at UCLA, and technologists at HistoryPin and Stamen Design.

From the article:

Over the years, garage sale and used bookstore aficionado Michael Rettie has discovered dozens of historical photographs in forgotten boxes.

A new crowdsourcing project organized by Stanford researchers is enabling Rettie to post his finds on a publicly accessible virtual map that offers a nuanced picture of San Francisco Bay area history.

Rettie is one of many amateur historical researchers contributing to Year of the Bay, the first of three crowdsourcing experiments underway at Stanford.

Crowdsourcing holds the promise of enabling scholars "to engage people locally, across the country, and around the world in real research," said Zephyr Frank, an associate professor of history and director of Stanford's Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis (CESTA), which is conducting the experiments with support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. 

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