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.

Hiking in a Land of Little Rain

Drought was on everyone’s mind as friends of the Bill Lane Center for the American West gathered in the early morning on April 18th for the Center’s fourth annual "Stanford to the Sea" hike. As is typical these days, there was no rain in the forecast, just cool mid-70s weather during that dipped down to the 50s at the culminating BBQ dinner in Pescadero. The roughly 20 mile route led from the Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve (the western edge of Stanford lands) to Highway 1 in San Gregorio, passing along the way through Wunderlich County Park, El Corte de Madera Creek Open Space Preserve, Huddart County Park, and the Purisima Creek Redwoods Open Space Preserve.

Along the way, hikers heard talks by distinguished guest speakers on the subject of California’s ongoing drought. Noah Diffenbaugh, associate professor of earth system science and senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, talked about his lab's prediction of more frequent intersections of hot years with dry years – a combination that suggests further droughts in California's future. Leon Szeptycki, executive director of Water in the West (a joint program of the Center and the Stanford Woods Institute) critiqued some overly dramatic media headlines on the drought, and said that the agriculture sector has sacrificed more than the public realizes. As for drought relief, there’s no “silver bullet,” said Newsha Ajami, who studies urban water policy at Water in the West and the ReNUWIt engineering research center. Rather, Ajami argued, a diversified "silver portfolio" of solutions tailored to specific locations could reduce water consumption, bolster aging water infrastructure, and moderate demand. Lastly, the author and Center media fellow Mary Ellen Hannibal talked about how the contributions of "citizen" scientists will be increasingly important for researchers addressing environmental concerns like habitat loss and species extinction. She pointed to mobile applications like iNaturalist that let regular people send geolocated photographs for experts to identify and store as "museum-quality" observations.

Following on the tradition of "Walking the Farm," a day-long hike that explored Stanford University's many connections to the contemporary American West, "Stanford to the Sea" was developed with assistance from the Peninsula Open Space Trust and the Stanford land use and environmental planning office. The hike was led by the Center's program and research associate Chau Ho. More photographs of this year's hike – and those from previous years – are available online.

Western State Water Plans are "All Over the Map"

Data visualization of topics found in state water plan summaries compiled by the U.S. Corps of Engineers (California Journal of Politics and Policy)

After a century of federal investment in dams and reservoirs fed rapid growth in the western U.S., water management fell largely to the states. So how have western states managed this essential resource – adjudicating water rights, prioritizing water uses, and planning for the future?

A team of Center researchers and students looked to the states' periodic water plans as a window to understanding the range of practices and philosophies. Their analysis, "All Over the Map: The Diversity of Western Water Plans,"  has just been published in the California Journal of Politics and Policy

In the paper, the researchers Vanessa Casado-Perez, Bruce E. Cain, Iris Hui, Coral Abbott, Kaley Dodson, and Shane Lebow found that not all western states compile water plans, and those that do may not update them often. Plans vary in length from less than 80 to over 1,000 pages; and while some are packed with water usage data, others have little or none at all. Moreover, while some states' water plans offer many specific policy recommendations – such as New Mexico's, Montana's or Nevada's – others are less specific, like Utah's.

The team also used computer text-mining techniques to compare the language used in water plans of all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The most predominant finding? That western states are highly preoccupied with maintaining supply, while eastern states's principal concerns are with storm- and wastewater management and drinking water quality (see image at the top of this post). Yet even approaches to scarcity can vary widely, say the authors:

As we might expect in the arid West, all plans concentrate on meeting future water demands but adopt different strategies to do so. New Mexico prioritizes drought management and interstate compacts. Utah and Wyoming emphasize water resource development, while Nevada concentrates on interbasin transfers and water quality. Environmental goals are referenced in varying ways. New Mexico addresses global warming and discusses the potential effects in a separate state drought plan. Idaho includes a section on climate variability but does not define causes of climate variability as anthropogenic. All the states analyzed fall far short of California’s lengthy climate change adaptation strategy discussion in its 2009 California State Water Plan or the full chapter devoted to future water uncertainties in the 2013 update.

The paper concludes by exploring the future outlook facing western states – with water supply problems mounting, are they at risk of being subject to stricter federal oversight? The authors suggest that rather than such a "top-down" approach, federal support for improved measurement and data collection would help states do a better job managing water:

Under our proposal, federal action would take the form of sufficiently large grants that states could apply for to monitor and collect information about their water resources. The type and form of the data would be uniform across the states and be publicly available on state websites. Some states might choose to forego taking the money, but, over time, governors hate to leave money on the table.

The paper also contains a table comparing western water plans point by point, from their budgets and planning cycles, to qualitative comparisons like how much discussion the plans devote to subjects like conservation, drought preparedness, and policy recommendations in general. In sum, the paper provides a sketch of each state's water plan and a sense of each state's readiness to manage future conditions. After all, while the plans themselves lack the force of law, the authors argue that "the potential value of comprehensive water planning and negotiation is clearer than ever."

Using Visualization to Analyze the Growth of the American West

A screenshot from "Geography of the Post," part of Cameron Blevins' PhD research.

Recent attention has focused on the work of Cameron Blevins, the Center's 2014-15 Thomas D. Dee II graduate dissertation fellow. As part of his study of the United States' western expansion, Cameron worked with the historian and digital humanities technologist Jason Heppler to build an interactive data visualization exploring the growth of the nation's postal system in the 19th century. The Stanford News Service has an article profiling Cameron and his work:

A doctoral candidate who studies U.S. history and digital humanities, Blevins has developed Geography of the Post, an interactive digital platform that visualizes where and when post offices opened and closed. The locations act as proxies for communities, Blevins explained, and indicate which settlements were temporary and which evolved into long-lasting towns. (Stanford News Service)

The digital narratives blog Storybench, a collaboration between Northeastern University and Esquire Magazine, also took note of Cameron's work:

From sourcing to analyzing to visualizing 19th century post office data, Blevins is at the forefront of digital humanities, a burgeoning field that applies the latest technologies to study the past. For his project, Blevins employed many of the same digital tools being used across disciplines like journalism and design to tell stories with data. He gave Storybench an under-the-hood look at his dissertation, “Geography of the Post.” (

The Center's Thomas D. Dee II Graduate Fellowship offers one year of support for a student in the School of Humanities & Sciences conducting dissertation research on the North American West. Cameron will begin a postdoctoral fellowship in history this year at Rutgers University.

Seeking Summer Research Assistants

Update: all positions have been filled.

The Bill Lane Center for the American West is seeking to hire undergraduate researchers to join our research teams for "Enchanting the Desert," "So Long Return Flow," "Local Coastal Programs," and more. More details and application information follow below.

Malibu Beach, CA, and the Grand Canyon, via Wikimedia Commons.

In addition to our summer internships, the Bill Lane Center seeks five undergraduate research assistants to join us for an exciting summer of research. Projects run full time for 10 weeks through the summer quarter, with some starting in the spring term at 10 hours per week. Students will be compensated at the normal University rate for undergraduate RAs, and will have access to a vibrant community of scholars throughout their involvement with the Center. 

So Long Return Flow

Efficient irrigation systems – such as sprinklers or drip irrigation – allow farmers to use all of the water allocated to them and are likely to increase crop yield. However, traditional flood irrigation returns much more water to rivers, leaving more water for downstream users and for natural ecosystems. This project seeks to understand how different irrigation techniques affect the yield of different crops, water consumption, and whether it makes economic sense for farmers to adopt them. We seek a research assistant to analyze political and scientific documents in Western states regarding water allocations and the push for more efficient irrigation systems. A background in agricultural engineering, agricultural economics, and public policy is desirable. Read more about the position and how to apply here; applications will be reviewed on a rolling basis.

Local Coastal Programs and Coastal Planning

In the state of California, Local Coastal Programs (LCPs) are basic planning tools used by local governments to guide development in the coastal zone, in partnership with the Coastal Commission. While each LCP reflects unique characteristics of individual local coastal communities, regional and statewide interests and concerns must also be addressed in conformity with Coastal Act goals and policies. We are looking for a research assistant to conduct a comparative case study of LCPs in California. Read more about the position and how to apply here; applications will be reviewedon a rolling basis.

Measuring and visualizing metropolitan areas: understanding the space of urban America

The Office for Management and Budget defines metropolitan areas as having a large urban center and a certain proportion of commuters in the population. Having explored the robustness of commuting as a metric, we will now integrate other metrics such as public services (transit, water supply, etc.) and communication to deepen our understanding of metropolitan areas. This summer, we will test the effect of the distribution of public services and people’s behaviors on the definition of metro areas. We seek an undergraduate student to investigate these metrics and their behavior over time and space, and to visualize and compare the trajectories of different metropolitan areas in the contiguous United States. Read more about the position and how to apply here; applications will be reviewed on a rolling basis.

The California Coastal Commission: A New History of Environmental Politics

Established in 1972, the California Coastal Commission was a government/public agency established for the conservation and protection of the state’s coastal zone. This project seeks to uncover the history of this important agency, tracing how it changed over time, its regional variances, and its contributions to environmental policy—both past and present. We seek three undergraduate students with broad interests in western, political, and environmental history and policy who wish to strengthen their knowledge in these areas and contribute to a new exciting project through archival research. Read more about the position and how to apply here; applications are due February 22, 2015.

Enchanting the Desert

This project seeks to “enchant” the Grand Canyon region with a diversity of geographic information, augmenting Henry Peabody's photographs with detailed human history. Users experience the Grand Canyon from a variety of perspectives simultaneously, affording them the opportunity to read the landscape synthetically through interwoven commentaries. We seek students who bring practical knowledge or interest in programming and the development of interactive visualization tools to join photography and cartography for geographical research. Read more about the position and how to apply here; applications are due March 15, 2015.

Collaboration Was Key to Knight-Risser Prize-Winning "Sea Change"

Craig Welch, left, and Steve Ringman in Papua New Guinea reporting "Sea Change"

With the Knight-Risser Prize Symposium coming to Stanford on February 25, we present an interview with the prize winners, Steve Ringman and Craig Welch of the Seattle Times, who will be honored for their work on the series "Sea Change: The Pacific's Perilous Turn." The Knight-Risser Prize for Western Environmental Journalism is an annual prize that is co-sponsored by the Center and the John S. Knight Fellowships at Stanford.


Reporter Craig Welch and photojournalist Steve Ringman traveled to four states and two countries and interviewed about 150 people for their project on how the rapid rise in ocean acidification could have a disastrous effect on the sustainability of sea life. But the heart of the “Sea Change” project, the 2015 winner of the Knight-Risser Prize for Western Environmental Journalism, was much closer to home – their relationship with each other. Their collaboration, they say, drove the story from the time the idea was being formed to the final editing process.


Stanford Press Pioneers Digital Humanities Publication with "Born-Digital" Project

An annotated photograph on Nicholas Bauch's upcoming website, "Enchanting the Desert." Photo courtesy of the Huntington Library, San Marino, CA.

The Center and CESTA postdoctoral researcher Nicholas Bauch has spent the last three years exploring the work of the early-20th-century photographer Henry Peabody, whose travelogue of the Grand Canyon is one of the earliest surviving such collections. Nick's research has led him from back-country hikes above the Colorado River to computer labs where he has geomapped and analyzed the photographs and their documentation of the canyon's features, while developing an interactive website presenting the photographs, analytical essays, and maps of the canyon. Nick says the site allows users to explore the geography on their own terms, in a way that "would be unwieldy on paper, but on a digital platform becomes seamlessly navigable."

In 2014, his work, "Enchanting the Desert," became the very first "born digital" project to be accepted for publication by the Stanford University Press. Nick has written a post today for the Press' blog expressing his elation that digital humanities ("DH") has been validated by a publisher.

Until now, no university press has been willing and/or able to critically peer-review and publish meaningful research projects that are “born-digital.” Because of SUP’s prescient digital publishing initiative, the gap between what DH scholars are making and the established pathways of traditional academic distribution and accreditation is now much, much smaller. Until now, this gap threatened the very survival of DH because there was no incentive for a group of researchers to spend their time building a digital platform to advance their arguments when there was always the looming pressure to do the “real work” of publishing.

Nick continues,

The SUP initiative is not only an outlet, but a lightning rod, announcing to the academic world that DH is, quite literally, official. The hope that I share with the editors and directors at SUP is that from this point forward you can use digital media to express ideas, and that—just like books—if they are deemed good ideas by professional peer-reviewers and editors, they might be published.

Applications Are Now Open for the Bill Lane Center's 2015 Summer Internships

World's Most Beautiful Office: Yosemite Valley. Photo: Heather Glenny, 2014 summer intern at the Yosemite Museum.

This year, we are pleased to offer 10 summer internships in the West. Students have the opportunity to work with national parks, nonprofit organizations, and private organizations on a variety of exciting projects. Many placements are with long-time partners, including two opportunities with the Golden Gate National Recreation Area for the first time in five years.

Our summer opportunities are open to current and graduating undergraduate students. We offer fantastic opportunities for students seeking to explore careers in natural history, conservation, land use, museum curation, resource management, and related fields. Internships are 10 weeks (exact dates may be negotiated with the host organization) and compensated with stipends to help cover living expenses, including housing, transportation, and food.

Applications are due on February 6, 2015.

Current Openings

Internship Organization
Historic Preservation Intern, Fort Mason
Golden Gate National Recreation Area
Historic Preservation Intern, Alcatraz
Golden Gate National Recreation Area
Environmental Modeling Intern Henry's Fork Foundation
Sales and Marketing Intern Heyday
Legislative Studies Intern
National Conference of State Legislatures
Resilient Landscapes Program Intern
San Francisco Estuary Institute
Archeology Intern
Yellowstone National Park
Curatorial Intern Yellowstone National Park
Museum Intern
Yosemite National Park
Archives & Records Management Intern Yosemite National Park

Understanding Crisis and Resilience in California's Housing Markets

Photo: Stockton, California street in 2008, cc licensed from Inman News service via Flickr

Hugo Lefebvre was a visiting scholar at the Center in 2013 and 2014, supported by the Fulbright and Palladio foundations. A researcher in geography and geopolitics, he is continuing his work at the University of Paris Dauphine’s department of Real Estate and Urban Planning. In this post for the Center, he describes his work exploring the roots of the foreclosure crisis in the Northern San Joaquin Valley.

My work at the Bill Lane Center extended and completed my doctoral research on the housing crisis in the Northern San Joaquin Valley. In the decade preceding the Great Recession, this region experienced very fast urban growth, fueled by the out-migration of people from the San Francisco Bay Area. When the crisis started, the San Joaquin Valley was devastated by foreclosures, experiencing one of the highest rates in the nation. This sudden collapse was unforeseen, and it caused major problems for cities that had based their fiscal expectations on continuing urban growth.

In my doctoral research, I had found that urban growth and foreclosures are correlated. This association is in part structural: many people who moved into the valley during this period of fast urban growth were sold subprime loans. Indeed, such mortgages were extremely frequent at the time – especially because lenders and brokers promoted them to home buyers (particularly minorities) even when they could have obtained better loans. I also concluded that the competition between local administrations for potential tax revenues reduced their incentive to manage urban growth in the valley before the crisis. This explained why the valley grew so fast, and also the explosion of foreclosures after the crisis started. 

During my time at the Bill Lane Center, I studied the evolution of the San Francisco Bay Area in order to measure and better understand its resilience after the housing crisis. Several scholars have recently argued that American cities are experiencing a major restructuring. They claim that, after more than 70 years of suburbanization, peripheral areas are not attractive anymore — for demographic, cultural and economic reasons — and that people are moving back to center cities. Of course, gentrification is not a new phenomenon (the term was coined 50 years ago, in 1964), but the decline (or the perception of the decline) of second-ring suburbs and exurbs certainly is. The Northern San Joaquin Valley – ground zero for foreclosures – is a perfect laboratory to test this hypothesis. 

Change in average Bay Area home values from 2003 to 2012. Cooler tones are declines, hotter ones are increases. Map by Hugo Lefebvre; click to enlarge.

I used GIS and statistics software to visualize and measure the evolution of the housing market in the Bay Area. I was able to demonstrate that places located far from the center experienced a steeper decline during the housing crisis, and that they were also slower to recover than the densest areas close to the center. I also showed that (all things being equal) housing prices in places with long commute times declined faster than others. 

On the other hand, places with high density and high rates of multi-family housing experienced an increase in housing prices. The spatial pattern of the recovery is very important for the future of urban policies: for decades, city centers were at the center of the scope, for very good reasons. This evolution of the suburbs means that urban policies need to be adapted to this new reality, and to provide suburban municipalities with more funding and better infrastructure.

After a very productive year at Stanford University, I am now a research associate at the Real Estate and Urban Planning department at Paris-Dauphine University. My work focuses more on France, and includes creating a “dashboard” to analyze tensions in the French real-estate market, based on data of residential migration between 2003 and 2008. I also am working on a comparative analysis of the real estate structure of French and American cities with the sociologist François Cusin, to highlight the diversity of the situations in countries that are often contrasted in relation to local politics and housing policies. 

My year at the Center has been a wonderful experience; being in an interdisciplinary environment helped me learn a great deal. The support of the Center has been amazing, and I would like to thank Bruce Cain for his invitation and his advice, and all the staff and colleagues of the Center. I’d also like to thank the Fulbright commission and the Palladio Foundation for their support of my research.

Looking Back at a Productive 2014

Photograph: Snow in Yosemite Valley, Dec. 13, 2014 (Christopher Michel via Flickr)

Along with the Stanford University campus, The Bill Lane Center for the American West shut down on Friday, December 19 for winter recess until January 5. As we approach the end of 2014, we offer the following reflections from the Center's faculty director, Professor Bruce E. Cain. 

The Bill Lane Center for the American West continues to flourish, thanks to the generosity and wise counsel of its Advisory Council members and friends. Your support enables our many activities on behalf of Stanford’s students and community. Capping a notable year, the Eccles family established a $4 million gift to endow the Center’s directorship. I and my successors will henceforth be known as the Spence and Cleone Eccles Family Director. Among the many benefits of this gift, the Center will be able to perpetuate and expand the annual Rural West conference and related projects. Launched by the Center’s founding director, David M. Kennedy, the Rural West Initiative promotes education, study and outreach about this often-neglected but critical portion of our region. The Eccles gift will also enable us to deepen our network with other universities in western states.

The Center’s Advisory Council has been strengthened by the addition of two new members: Bob Ducommun and Martha Wyckoff. Bob is a fourth-generation Californian and a 1973 graduate of Stanford (majoring in history). He is a director of Ducommun Incorporated, which is the oldest ongoing business in California. It was started in Los Angeles as a general store and trade station by his great-grandfather in 1849. Bob assures us that he will be in training this winter on the streets of New York for our annual Stanford to the Sea hike. Martha is a Seattle-based community investor who contributes her time, energy and resources to land conservation, the arts, the environment and civic engagement. She served on the national board of the Trust for Public Land from 1996 to 2009, and is currently an emeritus board member. In addition, Martha has embarked on a project to co-author a full life biography of John A. McCone, a notable California industrialist and 20th-century public servant.

Last year at this time, we were preparing an ambitious interdisciplinary course on the American West. The new course, launched in spring quarter, was an instant success, attracting over 100 undergraduates. Taught by five senior professors in such divergent fields as English, art history, history, political science, and civil and environmental engineering, it examined distinctive western themes such as water scarcity and economic boom-and-bust cycles from different disciplinary perspectives. We will be offering this course again in spring 2015. We also designed and launched a new Sophomore College class entitled Energy in the West. During this three-week course, held just before the beginning of fall quarter, students learned about different types of fossil-fuel and green-energy technologies, and how government policies shape their development. After a week of on-campus lectures, the class went to Wyoming, the Energy State, visiting policy makers and energy sites on a 1,500-mile journey over a two-week period. Planning has already begun for a course next year that will focus on energy in the Southwest.

Many of Stanford’s talented undergraduates try to have at least one experience undertaking original research before they graduate. Some are testing out the idea of pursuing a PhD, but most are seeking valuable skills that can be used in the modern workplace. Last year, 22 students worked for the Center as research assistants on the following projects: the history and efficacy of the California Coastal Commission, an analysis of state water plans, digital cartographic accompaniments to an exhibition of Carleton Watkins photographs at the Cantor Arts Center, a Grand Canyon digital humanities project, Native American tribal governance, the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project, California conservation history, humans and biodiversity in Stanford’s green spaces, and geo-engineering the American West. This year, several of these projects will continue, plus we have added research assistantships on parole hearings for California's “lifer” inmates and on defining fragmentation in metropolitan communities.

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