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.

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

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.

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