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.

What Do You Want on the Ballot?

Image: National Conference of State Legislatures, Denver.

By Justin Lin
B.A. Political Science Research Honors Track, 2016
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.

Our democracy fundamentally relies on the involvement and passion of the citizenry with government. This may come in the form of voting, working for campaigns, or promoting issues. A significant way in which citizens in 24 states across the country have the option of being involved is through the initiative and popular referendum process. The initiative, simply put, is a type of ballot measure in which citizens can put proposed laws onto the ballot for a vote. The popular referendum is another type; citizens can have the state vote on a law passed by the legislature, approving or rejecting the law.

The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) is a bipartisan organization that provides information, does research on, and gives training on state issues. Research topics run the gamut and range from healthcare to civil justice to elections. I work under the Elections and Campaigns division, where I explore the initiatives and referendums that are to appear on this year’s ballot as well as the law with regards to initiatives and referendums. A typical day starts with a quick check to see if states have released information regarding ballot measures. Then I’m off to either updating the database the NCSL has on ballot measures for the 2014 election or updating information that we have on initiative and referendum. After a lunch break, I go through and compile daily news clippings of ballot measures for individual states. Along with these tasks, I have begun to work on certain projects, such as writing about what has appeared on the primary election ballots and what is yet to come.

Museum, But Not in a Museum

Image: The archives, library, and museum staff in front of Roosevelt Lodge on a park-wide tour.

By Fiona Noonan
Undeclared, 2016
Summer Intern at Yellowstone’s Heritage and Research Center

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 people look at Yellowstone’s Heritage and Research Center (HRC) in Gardiner, Montana, a few questions may come to mind:

  1. What is that obscenely large building?
  2. What happens inside?
  3. Is it a penitentiary?

As a result, the place I’m spending my summer creates plenty of confusion for Yellowstone employees, citizens of Gardiner, and oft-confused tourists.

The easiest question to answer is the one about the penitentiary. Not an inmate in sight, even if the building is nearly windowless.

The other two aren’t always so easy.

Bridging the Valley: Building Connections at the National Parks

Image: World's Most Beautiful Office: Yosemite Valley.

By Heather Glenny
B.A. Art History, 2016
Summer Intern at Yosemite Museum

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.

The Yosemite Museum is a microcosm of the Park Service. Though we don't wear the green and khaki uniform, we are charged with the same duty as any park ranger: to conserve and protect, to enable enjoyment for all people and for all time. The museum may only have a modest plot of two galleries, but its collection contains over 4 million items. I get to put my (gloved) hands on the entire collection. I'll often assist coworkers in inventories or rehousing objects through which I've been learning how to safely handle delicate art and artifacts. However, the project I've designed for my summer is primarily research based so I spend the majority of my time in the Research Library. Here, I investigate sources to create Wikipedia pages for figures and events related to the park and also am developing a blog for the park website that will be a sort of 'Curator's Corner' where I choose interesting item(s) from the collection and write about why they're so important, historically rich, or just plain cool.

As Summer Begins, Center Interns Set Off Into the West

Our summer interns have pushed off into their western experience. This year, we sent students out to Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks, the Henry’s Fork watershed, the capital of Colorado, and into our own backyard in the Bay Area to explore careers in natural history, conservation, land use, museum curation, resource management, and policy development. Internships are 10 weeks and compensated with stipends to help cover living expenses.

We’re looking forward to hearing about the interns' adventures on our Out West blog. Reports are due to trickle in over the next few weeks!

Summer 2014 Interns

Location Topic Intern
Henry's Fork Foundation Research and Restoration Internship Taylor Burdge
Heyday Books Marketing & Events Internship Kristine Chen
Peninsula Open Space Trust Stewardship Conservation Internship Tori Greenen
San Francisco Estuary Institute Historical Ecology Internship Alexandra Peers
Yellowstone National Park Archaeology Internship Melanie Langa
Yellowstone National Park Curatorial Internship Fiona Noonan
Yosemite National Park Archives & Records Management Internship Kristen Stipanov
Yosemite National Park Museum Internship Heather Glenny
National Conference of State Legislatures Ballot Measures Internship Justin Lin

From Stanford to the Sea, with Water in Mind

On May 3rd, the Bill Lane Center reprised its 20-mile hike from the edge of Stanford lands to the Pacific shore. The day-long hike began at the Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve and wound through various San Mateo County parks and open spaces to reach San Gregorio State Beach, south of Half Moon Bay. Along the way, hikers had the opportunity to hear mini-lectures on water supply and drought, which sparked informal conversations along the trail.

Richard Luthy, professor of civil and environmental engineering, lectured on modern urban water use and Stanford’s upcoming stormwater capture projects; Daniel Swain, PhD candidate in environmental earth system science, discussed current and future weather patterns in California; Chris Field, professor of biology and of environmental earth system science, led a conversation on the impact of climate change and possible future solutions; and David Freyberg, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, shared details of his evapotranspiration research in the local area.

"Stanford to the Sea" was proposed in 2011 as an alternative to the Center's traditional “Walk the Farm” event, which built on the agrarian tradition of walking the perimeter of one's lands to consider such topics as land use, biodiversity, water, and climate change. Center hikers made their first attempt to reach the Pacific in 2012.

Undergraduates Meet the American West in a New Survey Course

Pony Express Route, 1860-61 (Image via

How do you span the North American West – past, present, and future – in just 10 weeks? This spring, the Bill Lane Center for the American West launched a new interdisciplinary survey course for Stanford undergraduates. Taught by senior faculty from history, political science, English, art and art history, and civil and environmental engineering, the course aims to introduce undergraduates to the unique characteristics and challenges of the American West — its history, physical geography, literature, art, film, institutions, politics, economics, and public policy issues.

The course has attracted 109 undergraduates ranging from freshmen to seniors, anthropology majors to mechanical engineering majors. It is organized into five themes: borders, space, boom and bust, Native Americans, and water. The format includes ample time for discussion and debate among the professors from the perspectives of their own varying academic disciplines.

“With lectures and readings woven around large themes, students get a truly integrated perspective on the evolution and current state of this critical and endlessly fascinating region,” says Bruce E. Cain, the Charles Louis Ducommun Professor in Humanities and Sciences and the faculty director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West. Students might contemplate western space, for instance, by examining maps that demonstrate the extremes of basin-and-range topography, discussing the effects of suburban sprawl on rural lands, and viewing Georgia O’Keefe’s ecstatic, skyward-reaching The Lawrence Tree.

To develop the course, the teaching team received support from Faculty College, a program of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education that encourages teams of faculty to develop innovative curricular and pedagogical ideas. The team is an interdisciplinary group of distinguished faculty spanning five departments and two Stanford schools: Cain, a political scientist; David M. Kennedy, the Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History, Emeritus and the director emeritus of the Bill Lane Center; David Freyberg; associate professor of civil and environmental engineering; Gavin Jones, professor of English; and the art historian Alexander Nemerov, the Carl and Marilynn Thoma Provostial Professor of Arts and Humanities.

“The strengths of the course are amazing and almost as vast as the West itself – a 'dream team' of faculty as both teachers and scholars, three dedicated and able course assistants, capacious and engaging themes, rich visual and textual material, and an infrastructure of support from the Lane Center,” says Michele Marincovich, senior advisor to the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education and the former longtime director of Stanford’s Center for Teaching and Learning. Marincovich recently observed and reported on the course for the Center’s Advisory Council, and particularly praised the teaching team for modeling knowledge transfer – taking knowledge from one domain and applying it in another. “When I sat in, I saw the theme of boom and bust reverberate across historical, literary, artistic, and hydrological analyses, encompassing large-scale mineral extraction, tall tales, irrigated agriculture, and epic landscapes,” she says. “Students observe faculty taking the course themes and applying the ideas across very different disciplines. Students are encouraged to do the same.”

The Center envisions this as a portal course to the study of the region, one that may lead students to further coursework, research, internships – and to becoming future leaders in the American West.

Center Media Fellow Explores "Extinction's Greatest Hits"

Image via Wikimedia Commons

At least five times in its tumultuous history, our planet has experienced "mass extinction events" during which three-quarters or more of the Earth's species died out. The most recent of these ushered out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Now scientists are wondering if we have entered a sixth extinction period, this time caused by human activity.

With the support of a Center media fellowship, the science writer and author Mary Ellen Hannibal is exploring the scientific insights leading to our understanding of mass extinction in an upcoming six-part series in The New York Times. Dubbing these theories "extinction's greatest hits," Hannibal explains concepts like island biogeography – how fragmentation caused by development can isolate pockets of habitat for particular species; trophic cascades, by which the loss of top predators can undermine the health of a whole ecosystem; and co-evolution, how species developed in dependency with others.

Each article in the series will examine a different theory – some of them developed at Stanford's Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve – and draw connections to the future of the western landscape. "The fact that so much of the research in conservation biology and extinction focuses on the West", says Hannibal, "Is testament to the wildness we still have here, the scope and scale of the landscape, and the history of its biotic inhabitants."

Hannibal, who shared in the 2012 Knight-Risser Prize for Western Environmental Journalism, is the author of The Spine of the Continent, a book about conservation efforts along the Rocky Mountains, and is a contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle, Nautilus, High Country News, and other publications. 

Her stories will run in print and online in The New York Times's Sunday Review section starting later this spring. To hear more about the series and the reporting behind it, attend Hannibal's lunchtime talk at the Center on May 28. Get more details and RSVP (by May 24) on our events page.

With Digital Tools, Enhancing a Western Photography Exhibit

Carleton Watkins (U.S.A., 1829–1916), The Yosemite Valley from the “Best General View,“ 1866, from the album Photographs of the Yosemite Valley. Albumen print. Lent to Cantor Arts Center by Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries

During the mid-1860's, the renowned photographer Carleton Watkins captured the spirit and stunning geographic features of the West – places like Yosemite Valley, the Columbia River Gorge, and the Pacific Coast near San Francisco – in three albums of mammoth 18x22-inch photographs. As Stanford’s Cantor Arts Center prepares to mount an exhibition of photographs on the sesquicentennial (150th) anniversary of Watkins's work, a team of researchers and students from the Bill Lane Center for the American West is contributing a set of digital tools that will enable exhibition-goers to deepen their understanding of Watkins’s photography and geographic context.

Led by the Center postdoctoral scholar and geographer Nicholas Bauch, the undergraduate research assistants Ashley Ngu and Davis Wertheimer are developing three interactive features that will comprise part of the exhibition “Carleton Watkins: The Stanford Albums,“ which opens at Cantor in April. The applications – which technically are iPad-optimized websites – show the exact locations from which the famous Yosemite exposures were made, guide visitors on Watkins’s path paralleling the Columbia River, and offer interactive “before-and-after“ images using Watkins’s photos of San Francisco.

The collaboration extends beyond the Bill Lane Center and the Cantor, as it includes cartographers from the Branner Earth Sciences Library, as well as geographers at the Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis (CESTA), who helped design and produce the interactive maps for each of Watkins’s albums. And the Center's involvement with the exhibition extends beyond the cartographic accompaniments, as former Center faculty co-directors David M. Kennedy and Richard White, along with other Center-affiliated faculty and graduate students, contributed essays to the exhibition catalogue, published by Stanford University Press.

The Center’s RAs worked with an eclectic team of design professionals from the beginning, hunting down and plotting Watkins’s photograph locations, making videos through virtual landscapes that demonstrate the spatial relationship among the photos, and writing text for the digital features. "Contributing to the realization of these interactives has been a rewarding experience that has taken me through the entire design and development process," says Ngu. "I’m eager to see how the public receives and interacts with our work.“ Wertheimer adds, “The whole project has been incredibly interesting, especially having the chance to look at these photos from so many different angles, as so much more than just frames on a wall. I think that’s what the entire team is hoping to convey in the exhibit, above all else.“

Summer 2014 Student Opportunities

As we leave winter behind, the Bill Lane Center gears up for a busy spring as we prepare for a summer of exploration.  While the summer internship application deadlines have passed (and we are excited to announce our summer interns, soon), we have a number of opportunities for students to engage with the Center during the Spring and Summer terms.  Whether this is your first time or your third time, we hope you will join us as we dive into the North American West.

Click read more to find out about:

  • Course Assistants needed for Energy in the West
  • Research assistants needed for Mexican Water Governance and California Coastal Commission research
  • Student-Initiated Research Projects
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