Sophomore College 2018

Fighting Over Our Common Heritage: Public Lands in the West


Wallace Stegner described our national parks as America’s “best idea … absolutely American, absolutely democratic.” But our parks are just a small part of the nation’s public lands, which also include national monuments, national forests, wildernesses, wildlife refuges, recreation areas, and wild and scenic rivers. The federal government owns almost a quarter of the United States and almost twice that much of the West, peaking at an astounding 84.9 percent of Nevada. Since the founding of the Republic, Americans have argued over the best uses and management of the federal public lands—even disagreeing whether the federal government should continue to own them. These debates have grown more intense under the Trump Administration.

Many of the conflicts focus on the types and intensity of uses to which federal lands should be put. Should wildlife refuges be open for petroleum development? Should national parks allow hunting, snowmobiles, and other off-road vehicles? In other cases, private landowners complain about spillovers from neighboring public lands. Ranchers in the West, for example, long have complained about federal protection of wolves and wild horses. These public land debates can be heated and even deadly. In 2016, armed militants occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon to protest federal ownership; the occupation ultimately led to the shooting death of one of the militants.

We will begin at Stanford with several classes on the history and politics of the federal public lands, as well as an evaluation of the competing visions for their use. We then will travel to Utah to visit key public lands, meet with government officials and stakeholders on all sides of the issues, and study conflicts first hand. Utah is the perfect state for this intensive field experience. Outside of Nevada, Utah has the largest percentage of federal public lands (64.9%). It is home to five magnificent national parks. Yet Utah also has been home in recent years to a new Sagebrush Rebellion, battling against federal ownership and protection of the public domain. Utah has been the central focus of President Trump’s efforts to reverse the orders of previous presidents who protected large swaths of public lands, including Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, from development by declaring them national monuments.

Students will complete assigned readings on the public lands over the summer. Once on campus, each student will choose a current public-land controversy to research and analyze. Students will present their findings to the class in the last week of the course.


Bruce E. Cain
Director, Bill Lane Center for the American West, Professor of Political Science






Barton H. Thompson
Senior Fellow at Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, Professor in Natural Resources Law




Blogging SoCo 2018 From the Field

While in on the road, our students filed brief posts about their experiences and what they’ve learned.

Scroll through the map below to learn more, or view it in a new window.

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Past Sophomore College Field Courses

2017: Water and Power in the Pacific Northwest– The Columbia River

2016: Managing Natural Resources on Native American Lands

2015: Energy in the Southwest

2014: Energy in the West

2013: The Last Frontier of the American West

2012: People, Land, and Water in the Heart of the West

2011: The Colorado River: Water in the West, as Seen from a Raft in the Grand Canyon

2007: The Federal Government and the West

2006: What's the Matter with California?

2005: Spinning the West