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.
With sky-high energy prices driving new oil and gas exploration in the American West, states are struggling to keep pace with critical infrastructure and revenue policies. Western North Dakota, for example, is in the throes of a raging energy boom, as hydraulic fracking and horizontal drilling techniques coax valuable hydrocarbons out of long-dormant oilfields. But as towns like Williston see their populations double virtually overnight and vital farm-to-market roads crumble under 18-wheel trucks, how best to ensure that local communities can survive the onslaught, and to reap rewards that benefit the whole state, long after the boom is over?
Working with Montana-based Headwaters Economics, The Center's Rural West Initiative has published a comprehensive multimedia report online, combining a rigorous economic and policy analysis with a 31-minute interactive video documentary called "An Unquiet Landscape: The American West's New Energy Frontier."
The video feature, reported by the intiative's director, John McChesney, looks at three rural western communities at different stages of the process of energy development: North Dakota, where a recent drilling frenzy has pushed it to the third-highest oil production in the U.S.; western Wyoming, where residents are coping with air pollution and habitat destruction after a decade of oil and gas exploration; and eastern Wyoming, where residents of one of the state's poorest communities pin their hopes on a boom on the local Niobrara formation.
"Energy development is arguably the greatest force transforming the rural West today," says McChesney, who came to direct the Bill Lane Center for the American West's Rural West Initiative after three decades at NPR.
The video report is published in an innovative format, an annotated, interactive player that presents supplementary information at key points in the documentary. "The player combines the benefits of powerful video storytelling with the precision of print and the linked nature of the web," says Geoff McGhee, the Center's Creative Director, who was a co-producer of the video. The team will be sharing the source code for the interactive player under an open source, creative commons license for noncommercial reuse.
The Headwaters report can be downloaded in its entirety from the Rural West Initiative website.
History is accelerating. Global population has crossed seven billion, the planet’s temperature continues its abrupt rise, and scientists warn we are in the midst of a new mass extinction. Transformations this enormous are rare in earth’s 4.6 billion year history and humankind’s planetary impact is geologic in scale. We have caused a new geologic age, and it has a name: the Anthropocene. Our students have grown up in this new era, and they are keen on learning what it will mean to live in the Anthropocene.
This spring graduate students Mike Osborne and Miles Traer, along with journalist and lecturer Thomas Hayden, taught a course for undergraduates entitled "Podcasting the Anthropocene." Their project: to have students learn about and communicate the gravity of these transformations and the evolving perceptions of environmentalism, sustainability, and science. Students spoke with geologists, engineers, ecologists, doctors, project managers, oceanographers, and historians on a wide variety of topics ranging from biodiversity loss to historical perceptions of the environment to agricultural systems to urban design to conservation philosophy.
The concept was to elicit the expertise of the Stanford community by having students sit down for one-on-one interviews with these researchers — including Richard White, faculty co-director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West, Jon Christensen, the Center's executive director, and Doug Bird, anthropologist and director of our Comparative Wests project — to explore their careers, their perspectives, and their understanding of the Anthropocene.
Richard White's History of Transcontintental Railroads Wins Los Angeles Times Book Prize and Is a Pulitzer Prize Finalist
American history professor Richard White‘s book, Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America, won the 2011 Los Angeles Times Book Prize in history in late April, and earned a finalist spot in the 2012 Pulitzer Prize history category.
The Pulitzer selection committee is comprised of esteemed historians and White said although he didn’t win the Pulitzer, it was a “great honor” to be recognized by his peers.
Twelve years ago, White began to investigate how the creation of the railroad system affected the development of the American West. Along the way, he uncovered tales of political intrigue, bribery and outright scandal that resonated with readers when his book was published in 2011.
“The financial crisis and scandals of the last few years were terrible for the country, but good for the book,” said White, who also is faculty co-director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West.
White’s findings go beyond the traditional accounts of the railroads as the first modern corporations. His research reveals “how closely intertwined the railroads were with the political system” and demonstrates how they were “as much creatures of commerce as creatures of politics.”
White is no stranger to the Pulitzer process. In 1992, his book, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815, was a Pulitzer Prize nominated finalist. He has also been on the selection committee.
White is currently working on a history of the American “Gilded Age” from 1865 to 1896, which will be published as part of the Oxford History of the United States series.
The Spatial History Project at Stanford has published an interactive online visualization of a decade of fire in western Australia based on the work of researchers in our Comparative Wests project at the Bill Lane Center for the American West. The visualization is based on a combination of ethnographic and ecological research undertaken by Stanford faculty and students in collaboration with indigenous Martu and was originally developed as a touchscreen application for the art exhibit Waru! Holding Fire in Australia’s Western Desert at the Thomas Welton Stanford Gallery in Summer 2011.
Ethnographic field work included interviews with Martu and quantitative observations of Martu hunting and burning. Ecological research included on the ground monitoring of areas at different stages of regrowth following a fire and spatial analysis of satellite imagery to classify burns over a ten year period from 2000-2010.
In the arid spinifex grasslands of Western Australia, fires are an integral part of the ecology. Following the first rains after a fire, small shoots of green vegetation begin to grow out of the newly enhanced sand. About a year later, the area will be dominated by fruiting and herbaceous plants, many of which are important sources of food for Aboriginal people. By about five years following the fire, spinifex grass begins to dominate once again. A large hummock grass, spinifex reaches out from its center and begins to crowd out all of the other plants. Eventually spinifex comes to dominate the entire sand plain and the process can begin again with another fire.
Martu fires, lit most frequently in the context of sand monitor lizard hunting, are significantly smaller than lightning ignition fires. Over time, these differences build into different contrasting landscapes. Within the Martu region, the visualization shows the fine-grained mosaic of different aged vegetation patches created by the Aboriginal fire regime over time. In contrast, the lightning regime is dominated by a small number of extremely large fires. The end result is a much more heterogeneous and diverse landscape within the area dominated by Aboriginal fires. This diversity also benefits other desert species.
This week, students return from spring break to begin the new quarter at Stanford. Throughout the year, Stanford students interested in the American West have a variety of courses from which to choose in departments across the university.
A quick glance at the courses offered this spring term confirms that the study of the American West attracts students and scholars from many disciplines. Courses available this quarter include "California's Minority-Majority Cities," "Federal Indian Law," "Ecology and Natural History of Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve," "Oaxacan Health on Both Sides of the Border," "LGBT History in the United States," "Field Seminar on Eastern Sierran Volcanism," the "Flor y Canto Poetry Workshop," and many more.
Alexandra Koelle, a postdoctoral scholar at the Bill Lane Center for the American West, is teaching a course entitled "Critical Theory and the Environment," cross-listed in American Studies, Anthropology, and the program in Modern Thought and Literature. Students in Koelle's class will examine a variety of theoretical approaches to conceptualizing the environment, including approaches from cultural studies, postcolonial theory, and feminist science studies. In the second half of the course, students will apply these methods to five topics that are crucial for understanding the American West: land use, water, agriculture, toxics, and animals.
Gold LA, photo by Neil Kremer
The U.S. Census released a report on urban population on Monday, and in it was a perhaps-unexpected fact: Of the ten most densely populated cities, seven of them are in California. Indeed, California’s showing was so strong that the great bastion of urbanism in the United States — the New York-Newark metro area — just barely made the top five.
John King, the San Francisco Chronicle’s urban design critic, interviewed a number of experts about California’s unique status. Among them was Jon Christensen, executive director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University. One of Christensen’s quotes caught my attention, so I followed up with him via email to explore why California is such a hotbed of urbanism. Our correspondence follows:
Tim De Chant: What’s special about California that it has so many dense urban areas?
Jon Christensen: The American West, in general, and California, in particular, is really a metropolitan region and has been for a long time. California, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona are among the 10 most urbanized states. The settlement pattern in the West is one of concentrated cities surrounded by wide open spaces — often substantially made up of public lands. This is true of California as well.
So it’s really the interplay of the history of cities and their hinterlands in the American West that explains why California has such dense urban areas. The fact that they are among the most dense urban areas in the country is also a result of population growth in California. The state has been and still is a great place for many people to live.
Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way, Currier & Ives lithograph, 1868
Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America, a new book by historian Richard White, is “smashingly researched, cleverly written, and shrewdly argued all the way through,” says William Deverell, the director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West. The book, 12 years in the making, is a “powerful, smart, even angry book about politics, greed, corruption, money, and corporate arrogance, and the America formed out of them after the Civil War,” he adds.
White, the Margaret Byrne Professor of American History at Stanford University, spoke to Huntington Frontiers magazine about the way he balanced his own unique brand of storytelling with an equally creative use of historical data through something called the Spatial History Project, a collaborative community of scholars who use visual analysis and digital technology to identify patterns and anomalies in their research.
How should we read the book—as business history, environmental history, history of technology, or all of the above?
All of the above. I weave various strands of history together, so anybody who is looking for a sort of clean, direct narrative— in which one thing determines all—has probably found the wrong book. I attempt to bring in a whole variety of subjects that influenced railroads and show why they came to be in the late 19th century.
Photo courtesy of The Wildlands Conservancy.
Sunset magazine announces the winners of its "2012 Environmental Awards" in the pages of its March issue now on newstands and online. Sunset editors and writers, including Sophie Egan, a former research assistant and intern at the Bill Lane Center for the American West, searched the West for the winners. Awards were given in categories such as Best Wild Kingdom, which celebrates one of the nation's biggest private conservation land purchases, Best Shoreline, and "Capital of Green," which was awarded to Washington's Olympic Peninsula for two separate projects that preserve beautiful rivers and forests.
The magazine's editors and an esteemed panel of judges, including Jon Christensen, executive director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West, also honor Education Programs, such as The Wildlands Conservancy in Southern California (photo above), and Visitor Centers helping to promote ongoing interaction with and appreciation of the environment.
"The projects and people we honor this year are outstanding in every way," said Peter Fish, Sunset editor-at-large. "We received massive amounts of emails nominating candidates and almost all were very good, so it was a difficult choice."
"The recession has had a silver lining when it comes to the environment," continued Fish, who served as one of the award program's judges. "Land development and competition from real estate developers is down, meaning that land trusts have a better chance of obtaining and protecting land."
The judging panel also included Brian Kahn, host of Montana Public Radio's Home Ground and author of Real Common Sense; and Jenny Price, a research scholar at the UCLA Center for the Study of Women, an environmental historian and one of the founders of Los Angeles Urban Rangers.
Sunset magazine was founded in 1898, and under the guidance of the Lane family in the 20th century became the premier guide to life in the West, covering the newest and best ideas in Western home design and garden, food and entertaining, and regional travel in 13 Western states. It is published in five zoned monthly editions-Pacific Northwest, Northern California, Southern California, Southwest and Mountain-showcasing the region's unique lifestyle and noteworthy destinations and inspiring its nearly five million readers to achieve the dream of living in the West.
Photo by Linda A. Cicero, courtesy of Stanford News Service.
The Bill Lane Center Fellowships for Scholars of the West invites letters of inquiry from scholars who would like to spend time in residence at the Center during the 2012-2013 academic year. The Center has funding available to support scholars whose work intersects with the mission and programs of the Center, who can contribute to the scholarly community at the Center, and who can advantageously use time at Stanford to advance their own scholarly projects. The terms of funding are negotiable depending on the length of the fellowship and any cost-sharing funds that scholars can bring from other institutions.
We are also able to offer visiting scholar status to qualified applicants who bring their own funding and have projects on the American West that are particularly suited to research at the Center and Stanford University.