Skip to content Skip to navigation

Back Issues: Finding Unexpected Currency in the Pages of an Iconic Western Magazine

Jun 29 2015

Posted In:

By Bill Marken

Sunset magazine covers from June 1978, July 1976 and July 1979. (Images via Stanford University Library)
 

Bill Marken

Bill Marken is the former editor-in-chief of Sunset magazine, and other print and digital publications. He spent a year at the Bill Lane Center for the American West as a visiting scholar, researching a book on Sunset'sinfluence on the West's postwar boom period. Here, Bill reflects on his time at Stanford and how it shaped his research.
 

When I first came to the Bill Lane Center for the American West for what turned out to be an eye-opening year, I wrote that I was developing a “narrative history of Sunset Magazine’s great success and influence in the West following World War II.” I was intending a book that focused on the groundbreaking period of the magazine’s two chief editors who preceded me: Walter Doty and Proctor Mellquist. They, along with Laurence and sons L.W. “Bill” and Mel Lane of course, were there for the 1940s-1960s when Sunset vividly reflected and also powerfully shaped the distinctive lifestyle emerging during a time of unprecedented western population growth, prosperity, and creativity.

My year at the Center helped turned that thinking around. True enough, Sunset’s postwar Doty/Mellquist period was extremely fertile, and the pages of the magazine were full of the new: midcentury modernism, leafy suburbs, back yard pools and barbecues, road trips with the station wagon, early ancestors of nachos. But the feedback and inspiration I got from the Center’s workshops, a public seminar, and discussions with colleagues gave me a deeper appreciation and understanding of the time I was at Sunset.

From the late 1960s and well into the 1980s, the pages of the magazine reflected the changing West. Sunset also dived deeply into two especially critical subjects that are getting considerable attention at the Center today: the California Coast and water.

During my 32 years on the magazine (1964-1996, the last 15 years as editor in chief), Sunset also ventured into new ground – the threats to the West’s precious natural resources and the pressures of escalating population growth and development. At the Bill Lane Center last year, I was struck with how much of Sunset’s early environmental efforts overlapped with the Center’s current activities and how relevant some of those same complex issues are today. From the late 1960s and well into the 1980s, the pages of the magazine reflected the changing West: the battle over Redwood National Park, alternatives to DDT in home gardens, UC Santa Cruz’s organic garden, threats to Tahoe, and much more. Sunset also dived deeply into two especially critical subjects that are getting considerable attention at the Center today: the California Coast and water.

The California Coastal Plan was triggered by a grass-roots storm that put an initiative on the 1972 ballot to protect the length of the coast. Mel Lane became the first coastal commissioner in 1976. At the time Mel was running Sunset’s book division (with Bill in charge of the magazine), and around the magazine we welcomed his involvement. Mel was extremely well liked and universally trusted, and his role on the commission didn’t affect what we did in the magazine. We approached the subject with a business-as-usual attitude (the last thing Mel would want would be articles that compromised his position or glorified it), mainly with articles advising readers on where and how to appreciate the coastal areas that were at stake.


Redwood National Park on California's northwest coast, established in 1968. (Image: Tim Parkinson via Flickr)

The plan and commission were groundbreaking in their scope and became a model used throughout the nation – even today.

These days at the Bill Lane Center for the American West, a team including Bruce Cain, Todd Holmes, and Iris Hui are unearthing the California Coastal Plan’s origin, impact, and ongoing lessons for the future. I will follow their work closely.

Another large issue of that same period has even more relevance today. The drought of 1976-77 – short by today’s standards, extremely severe by any standard – shocked all Californians. On the magazine, we responded in the way we knew would offer readers the most help around their homes: with how-to articles on drip irrigation, mulching, new plumbing solutions, and other practical solutions for conserving water. Probably Sunset’s main contribution was offering readers a new palette of drought-tolerant plants to work with. These plant lists were reprinted by the hundreds of thousands for East Bay Municipal Utility District customers; they were updated during the next drought in the late 1980s. As publisher of Sunset magazine, Bill Lane himself helped the editors give readers a heads-up on the water crises ahead. Through his service on the board of California Water Service, he learned early on about the University of Arizona’s tree-ring research that demonstrated historic patterns of long-term, repeated droughts. A 1970s Sunset article about the research warned of even more droughts looming in the future. In hindsight, though, I have to say that we could have done more to explain the larger forces at work: that California’s water supplies and policies were reaching their limits, not prepared for a future of water crises that loomed ahead.

Those larger forces are just what the Center and its Water in the West project – a collaboration with the Stanford Woods Institute – are facing head-on with initiatives such as “Understanding California’s Groundwater” and “Ensuring Water for Nature & People.”

As I chip away at my own book project, I now envision it stretching beyond the postwar boom into the era when we began to recognize and address environmental limits.

Thanks to the Bill Lane Center – Bruce Cain, Kathy Zonana, Geoff McGhee, Todd Holmes, Nick Bauch, Iris Hui, Janny Choy, Kathy Montgomery, and Minh Chau Ho – for so kindly welcoming me and expanding my perspective.