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2021: The Year in Review

Photos, clockwise from left: Student Ryder Kimball submitted this image of a Western Juniper Tree to our spring photo contest; Lane Center Director Bruce Cain shares a meal with Senior Researcher Iris Hui on campus this summer; in May, we partnered with The Palo Alto City Library to sponsor a highly successful online event on building antiracist communities; 'West' intern Isabella Meyn hikes the Mayhem Gulch Trail in Colorado over the summer; Kate Gibson, our new Lane Center program manager, conducts a staff meeting on Zoom with her cat, Eloise; in March, we hosted a fascinating virtual State of the West Symposium on wildfire.


Dear Friends of the Bill Lane Center,

Bruce E. Cain, Spence and Cleone Eccles Family Director, Charles Louis Ducommun Professor in Humanities and Sciences

At this time last year, there was no telling how 2021 would unfold at Stanford. After canceling so many 2020 programs – including our flagship Rural West conference, Sophomore College and multiple events – all of us at the Bill Lane Center sat in the uncertainty imposed upon us by the pandemic and crossed our fingers that 2021 would be different. Well…it was, and it wasn’t.

On the one hand, health orders prevented us from bringing back signature programs like Rural West and SoCo, and our summer internships remained remote. Events continued to be broadcast over Zoom, and students completed courses with us via distance learning through the end of the summer. But by this fall, in compliance with federal, state, and local health policies, Stanford welcomed the entire student body back to the Farm, and our faculty and staff have largely returned to campus as well. It’s almost feeling “normal” again at the Lane Center, having resumed in-person classes and face-to-face meetings with our wonderful student ambassadors. We’ve even restocked 2020’s empty snack cabinet...

With her characteristic humility and self-possession, Kate Gibson took the reins as our new program manager this year and kept the Bill Lane Center family motivated and focused through the unexpected and painful loss of our senior researcher Iris Hui. We also said goodbye to long-time Advisory Council Member Bill Lilley, who brought great scholarship, energy and warmth to his years of service with us.

There have been ups and downs in 2021, but through it all, we've remained steadfast in our mission to advance understanding of the past, present and future of the American West, supporting countless students along the way. We've missed them and are so glad to be together again on campus. And we've missed you too. Please come by Y2E2 at any time – this year-end letter will certainly fill you in on all you need to know, but it would be meaningful and renewing to catch up with you in real life. 

group of students and instructors posing outside in San Francisco

Students and instructors in our winter course on city planning pose for a photo during their walking tour of downtown San Francisco.

Educational Programming


As usual, we served up an array of courses in 2021 that point to the interdisciplinary breadth of our regional studies center. First up was a winter quarter investigation of city planning in California. With staff alumni from the Bay Area public policy organization SPUR, in January we offered Planning California: Exploring the Intersection of Climate, Land Use, Transportation, and the Economy, with the goal of covering key city planning topics and supporting students in becoming future leaders of the West.

"Planning California" instructors Egon Terplan and Kristy Wang

We are known at the Bill Lane Center for offering courses like this that address real-world policy and infrastructure issues. In fact, it's one of the things that sets our center apart from other units on campus; we pride ourselves on giving our students the educational foundation and tools for making a positive impact on local communities and the wider region.

The spring was a particularly busy time, with three online classes on three very different topics: land use, race and ethnicity, and an interdisciplinary exploration of the American West’s past, present and future. Our signature American West class and Race and Ethnicity in Urban California were reprisals of previous offerings, but the land use course made its debut this year with a stellar teaching team that included Jessica von Borck, Stanford's land use director; our former assistant director, Preeti Hehmeyer; Dan Rich, a former city manager of Mountain View and the Center's advisor on local government matters; and yours truly. Students enrolled in the course reported developing a new appreciation for the impact and relevance of local politics and land use policies. Said Valeria Rincon, MA ’21, of her experience in the class,

Headshot of Valeria Rincon
Valeria Rincon, MA '21

I’m glad to say my perspectives have changed and my attention has turned towards engaging in local politics and land use decisions as avenues for creating more equitable, just, and sustainable communities.

As the quarter comes to a close, we’re also reflecting on the exceptionally high enrollment in my fall political science class, Introduction to American Politics and Policy: Democracy Under Siege. With 162 students this term, we are heartened to see a growing interest in the political process, spurred, perhaps, by the dramatic 2020 presidential election and the challenges our country is facing as a result of increasing political polarization. 

Looking ahead to winter 2022, we are bringing back Jennifer LeSar’s course on the housing affordability crisis in California (received with great success last year), and Carol McKibben's research seminar, Race and Ethnicity in Urban California. We will also support another wildfire hackathon and seminar series, which aims to to bring students together from multiple disciplines to generate real solutions to some of the Earth’s biggest problems. Led by Derek Fong, the hackathon has resulted in innovative strategies to help CAL FIRE rethink wildfire prevention and response. 


Our 2021 cohort of student interns display signs showing their host organizations.


Whenever we ask students to share highlights from their time at the BLC, they inevitably mention our internship program. We offer two kinds of paid internships – one that places students at various organizations throughout the West, and one that focuses specifically on energy issues. In 2021, we proudly placed 21 remote interns, bringing our total numbers since 2005 to 180-plus ‘West’ interns and 80-plus energy interns. All of our interns blogged about their experiences, and we invite you to hear from them directly by reading through our "Out West" student blog. Transitioning from virtual experiences to actual fieldwork is something both students and staff are looking forward to in 2022. We know that so much of understanding the American West comes from experiencing its unique spaces and places first-hand. Our students have been patiently “exploring” the West from home for two years now – we are eager to get them back out into nature. 

Student research

In 2021, we continued our pandemic practice of hosting a large number of in-house undergraduate and graduate research assistants, providing these students with valuable opportunities they may not have had otherwise. With mentorship from me and especially Iris Hui, 20 students worked on a wide range of projects this summer. 

The topics they investigated point to the breadth of study we undertake here at the Bill Lane Center. We cover a lot of ground. Students researched environmental governance issues (such as public participation in meetings of the California Air Resources Board and collaborative governance structures known as Community Choice Aggregators); public opinion and climate perception (including of extreme weather events and electric vehicles); the history and future of climate policy (looking at air filters in schools to mitigate the health impacts of wildfires, for example); and recent and historical political challenges (including variation in the use of state emergency powers and the history of policing in East Palo Alto). You can learn more about these remarkable students and projects here


State of the West

A silver lining to our pandemic Zoom webinar format for events has been the vast numbers of people we continue to reach with our programming. In three parts covering three different topics, our signature State of the West Symposium took place virtually this year, in partnership with the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR) and the Hoover Institution. Combined attendance for the three events exceeded 1,000 people, which is a testament to the relevance of the material we covered and the knowledge we bring to bear on pressing issues facing the region. In January, the Hoover Institution took the lead producing panels on COVID-19 and the Western States. David Kennedy brought together wildfire experts and moderated a discussion with them for our March event Wildfire in the West. And in May, SIEPR organized talks on Energy and Water in the West. If you missed any of our three-part program, we highly recommend taking a look at the recordings. With over 500 attendees, our wildfire event in particular provided invaluable expertise on the causes and costs of these massive blazes, as well as potential regional management solutions, which we so urgently need. Though much of the information relayed was sobering, Kimiko Barrett, a research and policy analyst at Headwaters Economics, closed her presentation on a positive note, offering a path forward for managing the growing threat wildfires pose: “We know how to build smarter, safer homes. We can thoughtfully and deliberately think about how we live alongside wildfires with their ever-increasing risk.” 

Kimiko Barrett, 2021 State of the West panelist ​​​​​​

We know how to build smarter, safer homes. We can thoughtfully and deliberately think about how we live alongside wildfires with their ever-increasing risk.

In case you missed it

In addition to State of the West, we of course continued to offer online events touching on all aspects of western land and life – its history and shifting demographics, the rich art and literature of the region, rural health and more. A fruitful and ongoing partnership with the Palo Alto City Library resulted in two May events: the first on building antiracist communities with Rev. Kaloma Smith and former Stanford dean Julie Lythcott-Haims, and the second with Bay Area activist Jeannette Arakawa, whose memoir “The Little Exile” chronicled her experiences as a Japanese American in an internment camp in the 1940s. In June we co-hosted a third event with the Library featuring Shanthi Sekaran, author of "Lucky Boy", and Prof. Paula Moya, incoming director of the Stanford Center for Comparative Studies in Race & Ethnicity.  The new Past Events section of our website contains other Lane Center programs you might have missed; we hope you'll be able to watch or read about them at your leisure during some down time over winter closure. Here are three highlights from 2021:

"Imperfect Union": A Book Talk with Steve Inskeep

Steve Inskeep, radio host and author, stopped by the Lane Center on Feb. 2, 2021 to talk about his new book, Imperfect Union: How Jesse and John Frémont Mapped the West, Invented Celebrity, and Helped Cause the Civil War.

Book cover of Salinas by Carol McKibben

In February we hosted this popular author event with Lane Center affiliate Carol McKibben. Her new book explores how the political and economic stability of Salinas rested on the ability of nonwhite minorities to achieve middle-class success and inclusion in the cultural life of the city, without overturning a system dependent on an ideology of white supremacy.

Hands Off or Hands On? Perspectives on Managing Nature

Should we let wild nature run its course within a nature preserve, or should we intervene to guide it in directions we deem beneficial?  Jorge Ramos of the Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve moderated a spring program with Jeffrey Schwegman, assistant dean in the School of Humanities and Sciences, on the murky distinction between the "natural" and the human-made.

Research and Reporting

Research highlights: Facing fire

Above, you read about our many student research projects touching on a wide array of topics. As the West continues to face extremely dry conditions and increasingly dangerous wildfire seasons, I’d like to take a moment to highlight the extensive work we have been doing on this urgent environmental and health matter.

Our research on all aspects of wildfire – from public support of adaptation policies to ignition detection to the health dangers posed by the smoke – has continued to proliferate in 2021 as it did in 2020. At our State of the West Symposium in March, affiliate Kari Nadeau presented with sobering detail how humans and the environment are harmed by the 200-plus toxins found in the smoke. In June, with our student student Angela Zhao, Iris Hui and I published a paper in the journal American Politics Research looking at geocoded survey data in California, finding that although exposure to smoke is as extensive and harmful as Nadeau warns, it doesn’t change people’s policy preferences. 

Wildfire Mitigation Data Systems (WMDS) for Western Interconnection

Our students, too, are deeply engaged in this work. After completing a 2020 internship at the Western Interstate Energy Board, Alex Evers, BS ‘22, along with Prateek Joshi, MS ’21, continued their research with us, focusing on the creation of a Western Interconnection-wide Wildfire Mitigation Data System (WMDS). By collecting data on ignition events and probable ignition events from electric utilities in the West, and subsequently aggregating the data into a regional system, the students endeavored to improve wildfire detection, with the goal of reducing utility-caused blazes throughout the West. Ignition detection is a big deal, and we’re quite proud of Alex and Prateek’s July policy proposal for creating this mitigation system.

For more detail on our many research projects, we invite you to visit the newly revamped research section of our website. It points to our strong interdisciplinary focus, and our commitment to examining this region through multiple lenses. 


In her fascinating recent piece on car batteries, our writer in residence, Felicity Barringer, left no lithium deposit un-mined in her research and reporting on the lightweight metal that will play a significant role in decarbonizing global transportation. As the editor and lead reporter of the Center's '& the West' online magazine, Felicity -- along with the magazine's associate director Geoff McGhee, and student editorial intern Melina Walling -- has published expertly researched stories throughout the year that are not to be missed. 

Melina  Walling
'& the West' spring 2021 editorial assistant, Melina Walling

Highlights include this piece on lessons learned from the historic 1977 drought, Walling's article on disparities in the placement of electric vehicle charging stations, and this Q&A with Elizabeth Reese on how the U.S. legal system ignores tribal law.

2021-2022 Western Media Fellows Emily Kaplan (left) and Keith Schneider.

In addition to publishing '& the West', the Center also supports exceptional western reporting by awarding media fellowships each year to journalists investigating the region. Our 2020-2021 fellow Jim Robbins recently placed this story on increasingly dangerous ground-level ozone levels with multiple news outlets, and our  newly-selected 2021-2022 fellows are just beginning their research now. We look forward to reading more remarkable western journalism from Emily Kaplan and Keith Schneider when they publish their work in the spring of 2022.

collage of BLC advisory council members and staff

Transitions and Looking Ahead


They say change is the only constant, and this holds true for 2021. At the end of last year, our former associate director, Preeti Hehmeyer, left the Center for a new position as the assistant vice president for community engagement at Stanford's Office of External Relations. Kate Gibson stepped into her role on April 5, 2021, and she's been expertly steering the ship since then. We are grateful to Kate for navigating the turbulent waters of COVID-19 and multiple staff transitions with grace, humor and ease.

Our beloved program coordinator, Marco Martinez, has also moved on from the Lane Center, but newly minted Stanford graduate Olivia Popp has risen to the occasion, becoming our go-to staff member for administrative, programatic and operational support. It's no wonder the first task assigned to her was creating a massive inventory of all Lane Center initiatives, which was dubbed "The Everything Project"; like so many of our outstanding Stanford alumni, she is literally good at Everything. 

Four new members also joined the Bill Lane Center Advisory Council this year. We feel very fortunate to now benefit from the expertise and guidance of David Laney, Kathleen Brown, Suzanne Case and Chuck Farman. Their collective leadership and public service experience will undoubtedly help the Center continue to thrive, and we welcome them to the Bill Lane family with open arms. At the same time, David Hayes stepped down from our Advisory Council for a new role in the Biden Administration as special assistant to the president for climate policy. We are excited for David to return to government; he was an exemplary leader for us, and with his expert guidance, I am hopeful the Biden administration can start to break down the partisan polarization over climate change.

With great joy, we welcomed the very newest member of the team: Eliza Yamu Pan was born in July to Joyce Tagal, a Lane Center research associate who spearheaded our policing reform work in 2020. We congratulate Joyce and her husband Matt, wishing them well as they begin a new adventure as a family of three.

In Memoriam

From left to right, Hope Eccles, Eve Lilley, and Bill Lilley
from left to right, Hope Eccles, Eve Lilley and Bill Lilley

As our Lane Center Founding Director David Kennedy wrote so beautifully of our charter Advisory Council Member Bill Lilley, "Over his 13 years of service, he was unfailingly among the most committed, generous, and creative contributors to the Council’s work and the Center’s mission."

We lost Bill on July 19, 2021, and he's never far from our minds as we do the daily work of elevating the history, culture and splendor of the American West. In gratitude for Bill’s dedication to the Bill Lane Center and in recognition of his contributions to western history, we are pleased to announce the creation of the William Lilley Memorial Fund. It will stand as an enduring tribute to his service and his scholarship, instilling his love of the region for generations to come.

Finally, the Center held a beautiful Celebration of Life ceremony in November for the late Iris Hui, who served as our senior researcher and a beloved mentor for so many students during her seven years with us. Thank you to all who attended the ceremony -- both in person and on Zoom -- and especially to those who shared thoughts about Iris's impact on all of our lives. We remember her with love and gratitude and wish continued peace and comfort to the family and friends she left behind. 

word cloud with words describing Iris Hui
Iris Celebration of Life card

As we look ahead to 2022, we are cautiously optimistic that we will be able to bring back not one but two Sophomore College courses. One will take students to the Columbia River to study water and power issues in the Pacific Northwest, and will be led by some of our favorite Davids - David Kennedy and David Freyberg. I will be co-teaching a second course in Hawaii.

We also have fingers crossed that we will see you in person for our 2022 Rural West Conference. After a brief program hiatus due to COVID-19, we are tentatively planning to hold the 9th Annual Eccles Family Rural West Conference in Pocatello, Idaho. Stay tuned for many more details to come.

As always, we wish for you a safe and happy holiday season and a brighter 2022. Happy trails from all of us at the Bill Lane Center.

Best wishes,


Bruce Cain

Spence and Cleone Eccles Family Director
Charles Louis Ducommun Professor in Humanities and Sciences

Infographic displaying data about 2021 at the Bill Lane Center