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.

New Technologies Bolster Shoe-Leather Journalism

By Robin Evans
John S. Knight Fellowships

Journalists who are curious and determined are still the key to investigative stories that expose wrongdoing and hidden problems. But new technologies can help lower the costs that discourage media investment. And social media can strengthen and lengthen an investigation’s impact.

At the Knight-Risser Prize Symposium at Stanford, which is co-sponsored by the Center and the John S. Knight Fellowships, a panel of journalists and experts discussed the current opportunities and challenges for investigative environmental journalism. The $5,000 prize for the best in western environmental journalism is awarded at the annual symposium.

Pulitzer-winning environmental journalist James V. Risser, for whom the award is named, presented the 2013 prize to Tom Knudson of the Sacramento Bee. Knudson, also a Pulitzer winner, won the Knight-Risser Prize for his 2012 series, “The Killing Agency.

Shedding Light on a Little-Known Agency

Knudson’s series showed a federal agency in overdrive in its duty to protect livestock on ranches and farms in the Northwest. Knudson documented “predator control” efforts that were brutal, poorly controlled and resulted in the deaths of far more animals than suspect coyotes.

Chemical snares, leg traps and other killing methods also caught endangered species and family pets. Knudson found former trappers for the U.S. Wildlife Services who confirmed they were told not to report deaths of dogs because it would hurt agency funding. Instead, they buried dogs killed in their traps and threw the collars away. And he traced efforts for reform back to 1931 ­– all unsuccessful.

With many traditional news organizations cash-strapped and cutting back on investigative projects, Knudson considers himself lucky his editors gave him six months to work on the project. He’d been pursuing it off and on over the years, enticing editors as he gathered more evidence.

Few media organizations today are willing to let reporters spend that much time on one story, said James T. Hamilton, director of the Journalism Program at Stanford and a leader in the field of computational journalism. The panel, moderated by Stanford environmental journalism lecturer Thomas Hayden, also included Ngoc Nguyen, Health and Environment Reporter/Editor for New America Media and Susanne Rust, Environment Reporter for the Center for Investigative Reporting.

The Knight-Risser Symposium panel

Panelists at the Knight-Risser Prize Symposium, from left to right, were James T. Hamilton, Susanne Rust, Ngoc Nguyen and Knight-Risser prize winner Tom Knudson. On the far right is moderator Tom Hayden.

Traditional media is underinvesting in investigative journalism – because it's hard to see the link with revenues, Hamilton said. There are no inherent “eyeballs or advertisers.” One six-month project at a McClatchy newspaper cost $200,000, he said. Most large newspapers can “do two or three (investigations) a year – if they’re fortunate,” he said.

Universities can help by finding ways to make newsgathering and data analysis more efficient and less costly, he said. A turning point in Knudson’s project was finding an agency document listing each animal death in the predator control program from 2000 to 2012. But the data had to be painstakingly transferred to a spreadsheet before it could be analyzed.

A Summer in the West

Summer 2014 Internships

Applications due February 7, 2014 at 5pm!

Chau Ho ('09, on right) spend her 2013 summer on the Henry's Fork rivers, tracking rainbow trout and their habitat selection habits for a behavioral study. The Henry's Fork Foundation has hosted a Bill Lane Center intern since 2009, and continues to share its unique eastern Idaho experience with new undergraduates students.

Every summer the Bill Lane Center for the American West offers a multitude of opportunities for undergraduates and graduating seniors to work with organizations throughout the West exploring careers in natural history, conservation, land use, museum curation, resource management, and related fields. All internships include a generous stipend, and are open to current Stanford students including undergraduates, graduating seniors, and co-terminal students. Each internship lasts 10 weeks with flexible start dates, and housing is provided for some.  Students may apply up to three internships and rank their preferences.

The following 2014 summer internship positions are currently accepting applications:

Position Organization
Research and Restoration Intern Henry' Fork Foundation
Marketing & Events Intern Heyday
Ballot Measures Intern National Conference of State Legislatures
Stewardship Conservation Intern Peninsula Open Space Trust
Historical Ecology Intern San Francisco Estuary Institute
Curatorial Intern Yellowstone National Park
Archeology Intern Yellowstone National Park
Archives & Records Management Intern Yosemite National Park
Museum Intern Yosemite National Park










For more information:

Upcoming Event: Uncovering a Little-Known Agency's Toll on Wildlife

Poster for the Knight-Risser Prize Symposium, to be held at Stanford on February 5.

Amid the national debate about the National Security Agency's aggressive surveillance measures, and as the federal government continues to crack down on media leaks by public employees, a recent series by Tom Knudson in the Sacramento Bee raises a complementary question: how can reporters keep government transparent and accountable?

Knudson's series, "A Killing Agency," focuses on a little-known part of the Department of Agriculture called Wildlife Services. Founded during the first World War to help protect farmers and ranchers from wolves, Wildlife Services' mandate now includes trapping and killing animals that pose a threat to agriculture, transportation and the environment. Since 2000 alone, the agency has killed millions of animals, from hundreds of species, and all too often its indiscriminate use of traps and poisons has killed endangered species like wolverines and bald eagles, as well as house pets.

"A Killing Agency" was recognized by the judges of the Knight-Risser Prize for Western Environmental Journalism as the finest story of 2013. Based on dozens of interviews and many Freedom of Information Act requests, Knudson compiled an exhaustive record of an agency driven to extremes. 

To learn more about how Tom Knudson got the story, and to be part of a larger discussion of the future of government accountability reporting, please join us for the Knight-Risser Prize Symposium at Stanford University on Wednesday, February 5 at 4:15pm. We'll honor the Sacramento Bee's report and hold a panel discussion with a group of educators and journalists. The panel will be followed by a reception. Attendees are welcome to register on the symposium event page, and are asked to please RSVP by January 28.

The Knight-Risser Prize and Symposium are jointly administered by the Bill Lane Center for the American West and the John. S Knight Journalism Fellowships at Stanford.

Letter from the Faculty Director: An Eventful 2013

See photo captions at foot of article

Along with the Stanford University campus, The Bill Lane Center for the American West will be shutting down Friday for winter recess until January 6. As we near the end of a productive year, we offer the following reflections from the Center's newly designated Faculty Director, Professor Bruce E. Cain

The past year at the Bill Lane Center for the American West was particularly eventful. In addition to the Center’s many research programs, public events and undergraduate activities, there were important changes in leadership and staffing. David M. Kennedy, a founding Director, was finally able to hand over the Center’s academic leadership responsibilities to his successor and enjoy his version of “retirement,” which does not even remotely resemble what other people mean by the term. He has agreed to take a position on the Lane Center’s Advisory Council and has continued to play an active role in developing programs, raising funds, and giving strategic advice. In addition, David will be co-teaching a new interdisciplinary undergraduate course on the American West that will be offered in Spring 2014. Fortunately for us, David completely misunderstands the retirement concept. We have no intention of correcting him.

Kathy Zonana has now had a little more that a full year’s experience as Associate Director, taking over the administrative duties previously handled by Jon Christensen. Among her many achievements in the past year, she hired Kathy Montgomery to replace Laura Ma as the Center’s Financial and Administrative Manager and Minh Chau Ho to succeed Madeline Weeks as our Program Associate. Laura and Madeline were invaluable members of our community and replacing them with equally talented individuals was not easy, but we could not be more pleased. The Lane Center now has three distinguished Stanford alums on its staff keeping a watchful eye on a faculty Director who spent 21 years at a university that cannot be politely mentioned on the Stanford campus. Kathy Zonana also led the successful effort to draft the new bylaws for the Center’s Advisory Council. Nancy Pfund has become Chair of the Advisory Council, and Nelson Ishiyama its Vice Chair. In addition to David Kennedy, we added David J. Hayes, former Deputy Secretary of the Interior, to the Council’s membership.

Our goal in this transition is to nurture and extend the Lane Center’s mission of promoting education and research about the American West. The previous leadership and staff gave the Lane Center a remarkably successful start. They established important projects such as Water in the West, Comparative Wests and the Rural West Initiative. They developed many undergraduate internship placements and research opportunities for Stanford’s talented students and established now-annual traditions like the Walking the Farm and the State of the West Symposium. Moving forward, we seek to strengthen these activities and look for new opportunities to extend the Center’s reach and impact.


(Click "read more" to read the continuation)


Trilateral U.S.-Canada-Mexico Relationship Is Focus of Third State of the West Symposium

Full video of the symposium is available for viewing in the player above and on YouTube.

Regional free trade and North America's energy issues were front and center at the third annual State of the West Symposium, which took place on the Stanford campus on November 14. Co-sponsored by the Center and the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR), the half-day conference observed the 20th anniversary of the North American Free Trade Agreement and looked at how the region's energy future has been transformed by unconventional fuel production and renewables.

Leading off the event was the head of Mexico's central bank, Agustin Carstens, who discussed regional economic integration and recalled a proposal to unify North American currencies under an "Amero." (Video)

A panel looking back at the NAFTA ratification in 1992 brought together three of the original architects for the United States, Mexico, and Canada: Michael Boskin, Jaime Serra and John Weekes. Moderating was the Center's founding co-director, David M. Kennedy. (Video)

A second panel looked at regional energy policies and brought together experts from the three nations: former U.S. energy secretary Steven Chu, the petroleum consultant and former Mexican national oil company executive Adrian Lajous, and Canada's former environment minister Jim Prentice. The panel was moderated by the business leader and philanthropist Tom Steyer. (Video)

The event closed with a keynote address by Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, who described his state as uniquely positioned to innovate in both renewable energy and fossil fuels, and previewed a new policy initiative aiming to eliminate "fugitive" emissions of methane and other greenhouse gases from gas and oil production. (Video)

Social media coverage of the conference is available in the continuation of this article.

Americans’ Last Frontier

By Katie Kramon
B.S. Earth Systems and Modern Languages minor, 2015
Summer Intern at American Prairie Reserve

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 American Prairie Reserve wants to restore wildlife populations to numbers that haven’t been seen in a hundred years or more, but how do they know what was there? That is the question that my predecessor, Michelle Berry, worked with for ten weeks last summer, and I have continued with for the past ten weeks. The word “prairie” traditionally doesn’t bring to mind the abundance of natural habitat and biodiversity found in America’s national parks, but rather cornfields, agriculture, perhaps windswept wheat, but not much more than that. APR is here to change that perception, and demonstrate the incredible value of the Great Plains—as a natural habitat, and one that Americans will want to keep around for the future. 

A large part of this value is in the wildlife that used to thrive on the plains, and in some cases, still does. Michelle and I hoped to enrich APR’s story by giving an idea of what used to be out on the prairie, and the plethora of animals that encountered Lewis and Clark, the fur trappers, and others who had the good fortune of visiting the Great Plains before many populations were wiped out. 

On arrival at APR, I had no concept of what the Great Plains once had to offer. I could guess they had prairie dogs, coyotes, the occasional sage grouse, but was ignorant of the variety of species and sheer quantity that called the prairie home—everything from the iconic bison to the grizzly bear, the pronghorn antelope, and the elk.

Sophomore College 2013: Alaska

The Bill Lane Center for the American West has just published its report on its Sophomore College 2013 course.  This is the latest in a series of field-based Sophomore College courses, following trips in Idaho and Colorado.

Twelve Stanford sophomores took part in this year's course, "In the Age of the Anthropocene: Coupled-Human Natural Systems of Southeast Alaska," and they brought back stories, insight, and memorable photographs to share.  Led by Environmental Earth System Science professor Rob Dunbar, four graduate-student instructors, and a course assistant, the sophomores traveled to this pristine landscape to grapple with sustainable resource management issues surrounding forestry, fisheries, energy, and tourism.

Explore our other Sophomore College courses »

An Island Is Anything Surrounded By Difference: Thoughts on Maps and History

Detail from 1700s map from the Glen McLaughlin Maps Collection at the Stanford Libraries

The author Rebecca Solnit was a visiting researcher at the Center in the Winter and Spring of 2013, exploring Stanford's newly acquired collection of historic maps that curiously depict California as an island off the West coast of North America. The maps date from the 1600s to the 1860s, and are now viewable online through the Stanford University Libraries

For those inclined toward research, there is nothing more luxurious than an invitation to delve into an archive and no more delicious territory than an extensive array of primary documents, two glories I’m still profoundly grateful Stanford offered me this year, and to which I hope to return as time permits. I feel now like an explorer who had to turn back after only catching sight of the splendors and curiosities of the terrain. I will return. That the material I focused on was astonishingly gorgeous—hundreds of maps full of compass roses, mermen splashing on seahorses, an allegorical America riding an armadillo, land masses whose edges were delicately tinted in golds and roses and greens, western places I’ve visited mingling confidently with places that don’t exist – made it all the richer. But that was frosting; the cake, or the central concept, was about California and islands.

It must have been in 2009, when I was working on my atlas of San Francisco, that the great map collector David Rumsey told me the biggest private collection of maps of California as an island was also in the Bay Area, in the hands of Glen McLaughlin. I thought that someday I would look him up and ask to see the maps, and the very idea of this trove within reach was intoxicating, magical, alluring. And then it came very much more within range when Stanford acquired the collection and made it available to me.

I had long thought that we asked the wrong question of these maps, which are usually discussed as though the most salient point is that they are wrong. To me, in other crucial ways they are right, in ways that raise resonant questions about what California is and what islands are. To me an island is anything surrounded by difference, which is why we also talk about heat islands or cultural islands, and California—a densely populated landscape of great biological diversity and richness surrounded by ocean, desert and mountains, beyond which lie starker realms—is all kinds of island, or archipelago.

Exposé of Federal Predator Overkill Wins Knight-Risser Prize

Leg-hold traps are used to capture and kill animals such as coyotes. photo: Steve Thompson/US Fish and Wildlife Service

Tom Knudson and the Sacramento Bee have been named winners of the 2013 Knight-Risser Prize for Western Environmental Journalism for the investigative series “The Killing Agency,"  about a little-known federal government agency whose "brutal methods leave a trail of animal death.”

Tom Knudson

The $5,000 prize honors excellence in reporting on environmental issues in the North American West, and is jointly administered by the Center and the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships at Stanford.

The Bee's 2012 project examining Wildlife Services focuses on a a U.S. Department of Agriculture agency whose strategy for controlling animals deemed of risk to livestock and the public has killed millions of predators and other species across the West, often in ways that are inhumane, excessive and at odds with science.

It shows how the wide-scale killing of coyotes has proven ineffective and can backfire biologically by contributing to population explosions of prey species, such as rabbits and rodents. And it describes the indiscriminate nature of the agency’s traps, snares and poison, which have caused the often tortuous deaths of many thousands of non-target animals over the decades, including family pets and such rare, protected species as bald and golden eagles.

The series also tracks a long history of unsuccessful efforts at reform ––and two western congressmen’s current mission to revive those efforts.

“It’s a great example of a regional paper doing something really ambitious,” said David Yarnold, one of the judges and president and CEO of the National Audubon Society. The series and its use of Freedom of Information requests “reflect our best investigative traditions.”

The judges also gave a Special Recognition citation to the series “Clean Water: The Next Act"” by Robert McClure and Jason Alcorn of InvestigateWest and the staff of EarthFix.

The prize will be awarded at the 2014 Knight Risser Prize Symposium, to be held at Stanford early next year.

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