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 News and Notes

Faculty "Dream Team" Returns for Undergrad Course on the American West

This spring quarter, undergraduate students at Stanford will again have the opportunity to take a class as rich and wide as the region that surrounds us: the American West, a ten-week interdisciplinary course taught by instructors from five departments and two schools. 

The teaching team is a highly interdisciplinary group of distinguished faculty: political scientist Bruce E. Cain, the Charles Louis Ducommun Professor in Humanities and Sciences; Shelley Fisher Fishkin, professor of English; David Freyberg, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering; David M. Kennedy, the Center co-founder and Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History, Emeritus; and Connie Wolf, director of the Cantor Arts Center.

All of the instructors will be present throughout most of the sessions, which combines a sequence of two or three half-hour lectures with periods of discussion and debate among the students and professors, from the perspectives of their own varying academic disciplines.

Using the framework of five major western themes—borders; space; boom and bust; Native Americans; and water—the course aims to introduce students to the unique characteristics and challenges of the American West: its history, physical geography, literature, art, film, institutions, politics, economics, and particular public policy issues. 

“With lectures and readings woven around large themes, students get a truly integrated perspective on the evolution and current state of this critical and endlessly fascinating region,” says Bruce Cain, the Eccles Family faculty director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West. 

“The strengths of the course are amazing and almost as vast as the West itself," wrote Michele Marincovich of the debut offering in 2014. Marinkovich is senior advisor to the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education and the former longtime director of Stanford’s Center for Teaching and Learning. “A 'dream team' of faculty as both teachers and scholars,” she continued, “three dedicated and able course assistants, capacious and engaging themes, rich visual and textual material, and an infrastructure of support from the Lane Center”. 

As its first formal term-time course offering, the Center sees The American West as a portal to the study of the region, one that might lead students to further coursework, research, internships—and a future as leaders in the American West.

"The cultivation of future regional leaders, well-informed and engaged early in their lives with the region’s history, health, and prospects," says David M. Kennedy, "is among our cardinal aims."

Learn more on our courses on the West page »

‘Big Oil, Bad Air:’ 50 Years After the Clean Air Act, Pollution Problems Persist

Panelists at the Knight-Risser Prize Symposium on Feb .17. From left to right, Madeline Stano, Susan White, Jim Morris and the moderator, Sasha Khokha. (Photo: Steve Castillo) 

Last week, the Center and the JSK Journalism Fellowships hosted a bracing public conversation about air quality problems in western communities touched by oil and gas production. The 2016 Knight-Risser Prize Symposium at Stanford brought together the winners of the 2015 prize, Jim Morris and Susan White (of the Center for Public Integrity and InsideClimate News, respectively), with a panel that was moderated by KQED Radio's Sasha Khokha and included the environmental lawyers Madeline Stano and Danny Cullenward, a graduate of Stanford's Emmet Interdisciplinary Program on the Environment.

Following is a recap of the event, which continues on the Knight-Risser Prize website and includes the full video of the event.

Trouble breathing, recurring nosebleeds, nausea, headaches. These are the common complaints of adults and children in California, Texas and other states who live near active oil wells and natural gas fracking sites.


But it’s a hard to prove a link. Toxics monitoring is slim to none in some of these areas. Scientists can do little with only anecdotal information. Regulators are often reluctant to pressure the industry, and there is little political will – local to state – to remedy the situation.


That’s the conclusion of an environmental attorney, an energy economist and two longtime environmental journalists who discussed the legacy of the 1963 Clean Air Act at the Knight-Risser Prize Symposium at Stanford.


The symposium honors the winner of the Knight-Risser Prize for Western Environmental Journalism. This year it was “Big Oil, Bad Air,” a joint reporting project by the Center for Public Integrity, InsideClimate Newsand The Weather Channel. The 18-month project focused on the impact on air quality in one of the most active oil and gas fields in the United States, the Eagle Ford Shale of south Texas.


Read more at the Knight-Risser Prize Symposium »

Research Puts Coastal Management Under the Microscope

The California coast at Malibu

Malibu, one of the most coveted – and contentious – sites for property development along the California coast (Karol Franks via Flickr)

The controversial firing of the California Coastal Commission's executive director, Charles Lester, has led to renewed interest in the powerful but little known state regulatory agency's work. The Commission, established by the ballot measure of the Coastal Act of 1972, is charged with protecting California's iconic 1,100 mile coast, regulating development, and ensuring public access to the sea.

With responsibility for approving or rejecting new construction, property alterations, and coastal armoring measures, the Commission wields power over sensitive issues, and has faced criticism both from groups aligned with developers and with environmental concerns.

But a rigorous accounting of nearly two decades of the Commission's decisions by the Bill Lane Center's Iris Hui tells a different, less dramatic story: the Commission has approved an average of 80 percent of applications submitted, and it has typically done so with little delay. The Stanford News Service has a post today describing Hui's methodology, which utilized text-mining techniques to computer analyze a large quantity of Commission documents.

Hui web-scraped all of the commission's meeting agendas and staff reports between 1996 and 2014. In doing so, she analyzed its permit process, such as what received approval, how long the application process took, what if any permit conditions were granted, and whether the pattern changed over time. 

"The goal of the project was to use text mining to make massive paper-based government records transparent and accessible," said Hui.

As Hui pointed out, any development project within the coastal zone requires a permit, either granted by the Commission or by a local government. Commissioners have discretion in deciding what is constituted as environmental impact. An application can only be approved if it can be shown that it would not cause an "adverse environmental impact" under the California Coastal Act of 1977.

Hui's research, part of the Center's larger California Coastal Commission project, has been compiled in a working paper. The paper analyzes not just the up-or-down nature of the permit application process, but also the extensive conditions that the Commission frequently negotiates with applicants to mitigate potential harm to coastal ecosystems, communities, and public access overall.

Read more at the Stanford News Service »

Feb. 17 Symposium to Address Energy Boom's Impact on Air Quality

Knight-Risser Prize for Western Environmental Journalism

Excerpt from the poster for the upcoming Knight-Risser Prize Symposium at Stanford

Since 2008, more than 7,000 oil and gas wells have been drilled along a 400 mile long region of South Texas, with another 5,000 approved by state regulators. But while officials claim that nothing is wrong, residents who live close to oil and gas development report an alarming number of health concerns: nausea, nosebleeds, headaches, body rashes and respiratory problems.

These concerns and more were revealed by the ground-breaking investigative report "Big Oil, Bad Air" by the Center for Public Integrity, InsideClimate News and the Weather Channel. The report also found that there are no clear federal standards to protect people living near drilling sites — including children, the sick and the elderly — who are exposed to varying amounts of toxic emissions, and that Texas' air monitoring system is so flawed that the state knows almost nothing about the extent of pollution in regions like the Eagle Ford shale.

The story was the winner of the 2015 Knight-Risser Prize for Western Environmental Journalism, which is jointly administered by the Bill Lane Center for the American West and the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships at Stanford. 

On Wednesday, February 17 at Stanford, we will celebrate the award and convene the winners, Jim Morris and Susan White, together with a distinguished panel of journalists, educators, and policy experts to discuss the urgent issues highlighted by their report.

Nearly a half century after passage of the Clean Air Act, what is being done to protect the air that we breathe? This conversation is especially important in the wake of the Porter Ranch gas leak in Los Angeles and endemic air quality problems in agricultural areas like California's Central Valley.

Please join us for a frank and far-reaching conversation as we contemplate a troubling report with implications for our region and the nation.

The event will be followed by a reception with light refreshments. Guests are asked to please RSVP on the symposium page.

Read more and RSVP at the Knight-Risser Prize Symposium »

Poll Finds Water and the Economy Lead California Voters' Concerns

As Governor Jerry Brown prepares to give his State of the State address later this month, a new poll finds that the future of California's water and growing the state's economy are the primary preoccupations of voters. The latest Golden State poll, designed by the Bill Lane Center for the American West with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, asked voters to prioritize a list of 21 policy considerations. 

The leading issues were water and the economy, each cited by more than 70 percent of Californians surveyed by the firm YouGov around the first half of December. The survey sampled 1,800 Californians over the age of 18.

The survey also tested voters' opinions of three proposals that will likely become hot topics in the year to come: switching the state's gasoline tax to a mileage-based fee; the Delta water tunnel; and whether funds for high-speed rail should be diverted to other infrastructure projects. 

More detailed analysis of the Golden State poll can be found from the Stanford News Service and the latest edition of the Hoover Institution's Eureka magazine, published today. 

The magazine also features an article co-authored by Bruce E. Cain and the Stanford graduate student Esteban Antonio Guerrero Jaimes, looking at the obstacles Gov. Brown faces in his goal of reducing statewide petroleum usage by 50%. The measure failed to make it into the ambitious energy efficiency law passed by the state legislature last year, and Cain – the Center's Eccles Family Director – and his co-author explore the reasons that many Californians aren't ready to accept mandates to switch to electric or other "zero-emissions" vehicles.

Read more at Eureka Magazine and the Stanford News Service »

Summer 2016 Internships Open for Applications

We are pleased to announce that our Summer 2016 internship offerings are now online. This year, we have added three new internship host organizations: the Trust for Public Lands, the Pacific Northwest Scenic Trail and the Santa Lucia Conservancy. In addition, we are debuting a brand new program called Stanford Energy Internships in California, aimed at exposing Stanford students to the complex world of energy policy in Sacramento. Stipends for our internships range from $4,000 to $6,000. 

Internships offer students an immersive experience to learn hands-on about a variety of issues facing our diverse region. Undergraduates should apply by Tuesday, February 9 at 5 pm.

A Milestone Year for the Center

Photos (clockwise from left): EcoWest data visualization tracking the Okanogan fire complex; walking from Stanford to the sea in April; Center director Bruce Cain at the Mexico-U.S. entrepreneurship innovation council in September; students on the summer 2015 Sophomore College course on energy in the southwest; postdoctoral scholar Katie Young introducing a panel at the Rural West Conference in March in Troutdale, Oregon

This year, the Bill Lane Center for the American West celebrates an important milestone: a decade of advancing scholarly and public understanding of the past, present and future of western North America. Over the past very busy ten years, the Center has become a nationally recognized hub for the interdisciplinary study of the American West.

Our achievements to date give us much to be proud of. We have encouraged historians, political scientists, hydrologists, engineers, and art historians from across Stanford and the West to collaborate on teaching and research about important western topics. Our undergraduate programming has cultivated the next generation of stewards and scholars of the West through innovative new courses and a variety of internship opportunities with organizations throughout the West. Our annual Sophomore College field course and American West classes are quite popular. We have broadened our public outreach by offering talks, film screenings and articles that speak to a wide range of audiences. On top of all of this, we look forward to introducing new initiatives in the coming year. 

New Staff at the Bill Lane Center

On a more personal note, 2015 was a year of considerable Lane Center staff turnover. Kathy Zonana remains on campus but in a new role at the School of Medicine. Kathy Montgomery has retired to Bend, Oregon, and Chau Ho has begun a master’s degree of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Michigan. We are grateful for their years of contributions to the Center and wish them the very best in their new endeavors. 

We now have a new team in place and slightly modified organizational structure. Our new Associate Director for Finance and Administration, Jessica Dutro, joins the Center after nearly 15 years working in Stanford’s Office of the Controller. Our new Associate Director for Programming and Development, Preeti Hehmeyer, comes to Stanford after spending four years as a management consultant for local governments throughout the western United States. Researcher and social scientist Iris Hui is now our Associate Director for Academic Affairs. As a postdoctoral scholar, Iris had been running our American West scholars group for the past two years, and her responsibilities have now expanded to include oversight of all of our research projects, as well as our postdocs and dissertation scholars. Geoff McGhee continues as the Center’s Creative Director for Media and Communications albeit from his new base in Seattle, Washington. 

Looking Forward: Undergraduate Education

As many of you know from our various communications over the years, we have carved out a distinctive niche in undergraduate education by developing interdisciplinary courses and promoting experiential education in the American West. Our courses and internships are well subscribed, but how can we do better? Some new opportunities will come from collaborations with other units at Stanford. For instance, the Haas Center for Public Service’s Cardinal Quarter initiative hopes to expand public service teaching/internship opportunities among Stanford undergraduates. We will explore tying our internship programs more closely to that effort. In Spring 2016, we will be inaugurating a one-unit class on Energy Internships in California in conjunction with the Precourt Institute for Energy. In addition, we plan to create an American West-themed dorm with a sequence of courses built on the foundation of our American West lecture class and additional educational trips throughout the region. We expect to have a preliminary plan by May when our Advisory Council meets and then to launch it in Fall 2017.

New Research and Public Service Initiatives

The Bill Lane Center has taken many steps in recent years to study issues and problems in the American West. Our annual State of the West conference with SIEPR brings scholars, public officials and members of the business sector to hear about and discuss economic and policy trends in western states. Our annual Eccles Family Rural West conference circulates to different states every year to learn about issues in rural areas. And in July, the Center hosted the inaugural Local Government Summer Institute. This week-long institute convened city managers, county executives, regional directors, and other senior local government officials from throughout the West. While at Stanford, these local executives had the opportunity to exchange and acquire tools for improving local government performance and ways of enhancing prospective analytical capacity to innovate and anticipate societal change. 

This year, we also strengthened our focus on water and energy issues at the southern border, topics that will become more important due to the drought and mandated reductions in carbon emissions. In August, the Center and the Precourt Institute for Energy cosponsored a clean tech trade delegation aimed at accelerating clean energy investment and development in Mexico and California. In September, we co-hosted representatives from the U.S. State Department and the Mexico-US Entrepreneurship and Innovation Council. At this meeting, Stanford signed letters of intent to collaborate with the State of Baja California and the City of Tijuana to create some test-beds along the border for new technologies in energy and water and to undertake joint research. Finally, in October, we invited scholars from universities across Mexico to discuss the water-energy nexus issues along the California-Mexico border region. This workshop produced several concrete proposals that will allow us to test new technologies at small scale and to do research about how the border region is adapting to the climate and energy challenges both countries face.

Toward The Next Ten Years

As we look toward our second decade, the Center will develop a strategic plan over the next six months to guide our efforts. We welcome input from all of our friends and supporters. I extend my deepest thanks for your support of the Lane Center in its first decade, and look forward to our continued success in the years to come.

All the best,


Bruce E. Cain

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