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.

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.

Reflecting on a Busy Summer Researching Election Laws

By Yoseph Desta
B.S. Political Science Research Honors Track, 2014
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.

My summer working at the NCSL was an amazing and enriching experience. For the past ten weeks I worked in the Legislative Management department of the NCSL, where I had the opportunity to work alongside passionate and dedicated policy experts and become immersed in the fascinating world of state politics and election law.

To say that I’ve learned a lot about election law would be an understatement. Take, for instance, my most recent research projects this summer. In the past weeks alone, I was asked to write an article and create a webpage on preregistration of youth voters, create 50-state reports on requirements for poll workers and polling places, and respond to an information request regarding campaign contributions from PACs. These topics, although only a brief glimpse into my research this summer, illustrate just how broad and diverse election laws and research requests regarding these laws can be. Moreover, with 2013 bringing a slew of election law changes at the national level (e.g. the Supreme Court’s Voting Rights Act decision) and state level (e.g. North Carolina’s recently passed elections bill), the research that I have conducted with the NCSL Elections Team has been constantly evolving and expanding.

Seeking Research Assistants for Historical Photography Exhibition

We are pleased to offer a new internship opportunity for undergraduate students over the fall and winter quarters: a research assistantship related to an upcoming exhibition at the Cantor Arts Center on the 19th-century western photographer Carleton Watkins. More details and application information follow below.

The Bill Lane Center for the American West, in collaboration with the Cantor Arts Center and the Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis (CESTA), seeks to hire a team of undergraduate research assistants to help produce a series of digital, interactive maps that will accompany the exhibition Carleton Watkins: The Stanford Albums at the Cantor. The exhibition, opening in April 2014, features Watkins’ mid- to late-nineteenth-century photographs of the American West from Stanford Libraries’s Special Collections. The collaboration between the Bill Lane Center, the Cantor, and CESTA grew out of a mutual interest in illustrating the importance of Watkins’ photography to early cartography and the role that geographic exploration played in employing Watkins and other photographers of the era. The cartographic accompaniments to the exhibition will illustrate elements of Watkins’ life and spatial elements of the photos on view in the exhibition. These accompaniments will take multiple forms including interactive technology as well as simple graphics. 

The research assistants will aid in the research and production of the cartographic accompaniments to the exhibition. Research assistants will have the opportunity to learn about the elements of planning and mounting an exhibition and to assist with museum tasks related to the cartographic work. Research assistants will also participate in seminar-style discussions with the team at the Bill Lane Center and the Cantor (topics will highlight the intersections of art and science, especially as derived from Watkins’ relevance to the history of photography and geography of the Pacific Coast as well as museum concerns including display and conservation of photographs). A background in geography, history, photography, art history, design, UI design, and/or communication is preferred, but not required. Students should demonstrate skill in Adobe Flash, Illustrator, Photoshop, and/or ESRI's ArcGIS. We are seeking responsible team players and clear communicators who meet deadlines reliably. The position requires approximately 8-10 hours per week during fall quarter, with the potential to continue during winter quarter, at $15/hour.

To apply: send resume and cover letter to Minh Chau Ho, Program Associate, at by Sunday, October 13th.  Contact her with questions via email or (650) 721-2569.

Historical Detectives at Work

Image: Watercolor map of the Tijuana River, courtesy of Stamen Designs

By Rachel Powell
B.S. Biology, 2013
Summer Intern at San Francisco Estuary Institute

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.

It is hard to believe that my summer internship at the San Francisco Estuary institute is over, or that I managed to accomplish so much in just 10 weeks. I worked on several ongoing projects during my time at SFEI this summer, one of which I mentioned in my last post—a study on the extent of tidal influence in Bay Area creeks, which I participated in by helping with field work and writing a literature review for the final report. I also collected and read sources for the Tijuana River historical ecology study, wrote parts of a historical ecology report on the north San Diego county lagoons, went on a site visit to the John Muir National Monument in Martinez, CA (soon to be the subject of a historical ecology study), and mapped coastal waterways for the South Coast wetland change analysis.

The Historical Ecology team at SFEI works on a number of projects at any given time, some which are very large and span several years (San Diego lagoons, Tijuana River), and others which are on a much smaller time scale (John Muir, Novato Creek). During my internship I had the opportunity to participate in nearly all of their current projects, doing a wide range of tasks which gave me a sense of how the typical historical ecology study progresses from start to completion. They first gather a wide range of historical documents and current scientific research relevant to their study area, then use these sources to build a textual description of what the historical landscape looked like. In addition, they use historical maps, past and current aerial imagery, and photographs to map with a high degree of certainty where different habitat types existed 200 years ago, and where they are found today.

Finding Myself in Yellowstone

Image: Backpacking in Glacier National Park.

By Maddie Graham
B.S. Biomechanical Engineering, 2015
Summer Intern at Yellowstone National Park

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.

It is amazing how fast time flies. During my drive home from a summer spent in Yellowstone National Park I began tearing up, but I wasn’t quite sure why. I will definitely miss the people I met and the park, but I realized that the biggest reason for the tears was because of how fast the summer went. There were so many things still to do and see, so hopefully I can return someday soon. Similarly, everyone says that we need to enjoy college because it goes fast, and it truly does! I am already halfway done with my time at Stanford and there are still so many things left to explore. This summer was an experience of a lifetime and I am so thankful for the opportunity to work in Yellowstone. I discovered a newfound love of the outdoors and an appreciation for the history of our national parks.

This summer, the majority of my job was spent cataloging artifacts to add to the growing collection of Yellowstone memorabilia, as well as lead tours of the facility. During these tours, numerous people asked me why I chose to work at the heritage and research center if I was majoring in biomechanical engineering. Although engineering is very different from museum and curatorial work, I actually learned a lot about myself and what I might want to do following my time at Stanford. My summer job taught me how to be proactive, seeking out and finding projects to do and new items to catalog. I learned how to get along with coworkers and really reach out and get to know new people. The experiences I had this summer were not limited to the research center, but actually extended to my living situation in the YCC dorm and the relationships I formed with the other park service employees I met there. It is amazing how all walks of life came together to work in Yellowstone National Park; I met some interesting people and heard some great stories. Through it all, though, I learned the importance of being true to yourself and holding strong to your beliefs, but also getting out of your comfort zone and trying new things.

Upcoming Event
Tuesday, October 08, 2013

American Political Campaigns: An Election that Resolved Nothing?

A Conversation with the Washington Post's Dan Balz, Author of "Collision 2012"

E.D. Stone, Alway Building
Room Mcm106

In his book, Collision 2012: Obama vs. Romney and the Future of Elections in America, Dan Balz describes the 2012 presidential election as a contest between two different visions of America.  The final tally produced a winner but no resolution to the political stalemate that Washington now finds itself in.  In a panel discussion with two campaign leaders, Dan Balz will discuss the current problems in Washington, and what the current political situation may mean for California and the West.  Moderated by Bruce Cain.
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