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.

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.

Winter Quarter Courses on the American West

A statue of Sacajawea, guide to Lewis and Clark, by sculptor Alice Cooper in Portland, Ore.

This winter quarter, Stanford students interested in studying the American West have an exciting array of 37 courses to choose from across many departments on campus. We've collected a full listing of more than 100 courses on the West offered each year at Stanford.

Each year, postdoctoral scholars at the Bill Lane Center for the American West also offer special courses of their own design that rise out of their own original research. This winter, historian Brenda Frink will teach "Women, Race, and the American West, 1849-1950," a course offered in the History Department and the program in Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity. The course offers students an innovative opportunity to examine the history and myths of the West through the lived experience of real western women and the pervasive myths that continue to shape our conceptions of race and gender in western history, as they cast a critical eye on Hollywood westerns, historical novels, public artwork, and immigration records from Angel Island, the gateway to the West in the San Francisco Bay.

Other courses offered this winter include "The California Gold Rush: Geologic Background and Environmental Impact," "Specialized Writing and Reporting: Covering Silicon Valley," and "Ecology and Natural History of Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve," among many others.

For the full listing of winter courses, click here.

The Case of the Dying Trembling Aspens

Bill Anderegg preparing to make measurements of aspen canopy photosynthesis

Over the past 10 years, the death of forest trees due to drought and increased temperatures has been documented on all continents except Antarctica. The death of forests, which may be caused by global warming, can in turn drive global warming by reducing the amount of carbon dioxide removed from the atmosphere by trees and by releasing carbon locked up in their wood. Bill Anderegg — a Stanford PhD student and Carnegie Institution researcher supported by the Bill Lane Center for the American West — has now discovered evidence for the physiological mechanism governing tree death in a drought in the aspen forests of the American West. His work was published the week of December 12 by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Forests store about 45 percent of the carbon found on land. Their mortality can radically transform ecosystems, affect biodiversity, harm local economies, and pose fire risks, as well as increase global warming. These risks have become alarming apparent in the American West in recent years.

Scientists had two competing theories for how forest trees die during a drought. One hypothesis proposed that the trees starved due to decreased photosynthetic activity. The other proposed that the system for transporting water within a tree was damaged beyond repair due to the stresses of the drought.

Without knowing which theory was correct, it was difficult for researchers to build models and make projections about the larger impact of drought-induced forest mortality — and what fate may lie in store for forests around the world as well here at home in the American West.

Anderegg's team focused their efforts on climate-induced die offs of trembling aspen trees in the Rocky Mountains. They looked directly at both carbon starvation and water-transportation stress on ongoing forest deaths.

What is causing the widespread death of this emblematic tree of the American West?

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