Following the Money in the West


by Leisl Carr Childers

A review of Follow the Money: A Spatial History for In-Lieu Programs for Western Federal Lands

Follow the Money: A Spatial History of In-Lieu Programs for Western Federal Lands. Joseph e. Taylor, III, Krista Fryauff, Erik Steiner, et. al., Creators; Spatial History Project at Stanford University Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis, Publishers. Created 2016; Accessed January 2017.

Follow the Money: A Spatial History of In-Lieu Programs for Western Federal Lands is the first academic project, digital or print, that spatially and comparatively examines the payment programs the federal government created to compensate western states for the withdrawal of those lands from the disposal process. As the creators explain “During the twentieth century Congress passed a series of laws that has guided the management of federal natural resources, and in partial compensation for how the federalization of these lands diminished the tax bases of western states, Congress also adopted formulas that distribute a portion of the natural resource revenues to western states and counties.” The project’s purpose is to show “how political economy has welded together federal, state, and local governments through a set of laws that distribute revenues to sustain the ecological and social services westerners rely on every day” (History). These payments are the financial ligatures between local residents and governments, particularly in rural areas, Congress, and federal lands, and they are funds earmarked predominately for supporting social services, such as schools and roads, that municipal and county taxes levied on private properties typically support. The value of this project to scholars and researchers of public lands is enormous, particularly in its ability to isolate the in-lieu revenue streams and visualize trends across different geographies.

The project’s homepage launches users into an interactive map that features ten different in-lieu payment revenue streams ranging from the earliest, the 1908 Forest Service Revenue Payments, to the most recent, the 2001 Secure Rural Schools and Roads Payment Program. Users can select one of the ten in-lieu payment programs and track the level of payments received by counties throughout the eleven western states across the twentieth century. Users can also select an advanced function that compares each county’s payments in a given year to its historical average for that payment program. Each of the programs is described in a short paragraph to the left of the interactive map and the creators have noted spatial and financial trends that are particular to each of the in-lieu payment distribution policies. Beyond the homepage, the project offers a rich amount of information on the history of these payment programs within the context of public lands management and excellent succinct descriptions of each of the ten in-lieu payment programs. These program overviews are valuable distillations of lengthy legal, economic and political accounts of the history and function of land laws such as the Taylor Grazing Act, the Forest Mineral Leasing Act, the Payment in Lieu of Taxes Act, and other public lands management instruments.

The most astounding aspect of the project, however, is the amount of data the creators collected and the amount of data that still needs collection to complete the mosaic the project has begun. It is frustrating to not have all the data available for all the western counties in all the applicable years, but as the creators note, “There is little transparency about how much public money went to public entities in any fiscal year” (Notes). The reporting mechanisms for the various in-lieu payment programs varied widely and states had no consistent policies for receiving, forwarding, or redistributing the funds. In this way, Follow the Money serves as a portal for understanding the reporting mechanisms and the vast inconsistency in the reports between and within in-lieu payment programs. This state of affairs reveals the lack of priority given these payments, if we assume that good accounting is provided to important programs, and it is no surprise that none of these in-lieu payment programs have been consistently fully funded. The creators handled the existing data deftly and reconciled the nearly impossible problems of inflation and the differences between the delivery and receipt of payments so that the data is comparable and visualizations actually reveal real trends. Graciously, the creators have provided both nominal and adjusted downloadable data sets of all that they collected so that the project’s spatial visualizations can be replicated in other forums.

Follow the Money’s intent to “provide baseline information for scholars and the public” and its goal “to present spatial and temporal data in forms people can use to think about and teach the transfer payments that link federal lands and rural communities” is both timely and necessary (History). If current events are any indication, conversations about public lands, especially their political economy, are only going to increase. The project’s creators know this and have provided useful links to pertinent ongoing public lands conversations such as those featured in the High Country News, Harpers Magazine, The Atlantic, Reuters, resources such as Colorado College’s State of the Rockies Project “Conservation in the West Poll” and organizations such as the Center for American Progress, throughout the text. Their interpretation of these payment programs’ effects constitutes an important statement about the greater political economy of public lands.

In-lieu payment programs suggest that the ideal property structure of states and counties consists predominately of private land holdings that provide tax revenue to municipal, county, and state governments and in providing compensation for land withheld from private ownership, the federal government sanctions this assumption, but the funds as they are provided belies the commitment to providing this compensation. The in-lieu payments are also an annual reminder to western states that they do not control the forests, grasslands, and mineral estate within their boundaries as do states east of the Missouri River and are, as a result, actively denied the traditional revenues from those lands and equal financial footing at the national level. The payments themselves are predicated on politics and not the actual market value of the natural resources extracted from public lands and over time, they have decreased, especially in rural counties. Ultimately then, Follow the Money offers one explanation as to why there is so much distance between rural western places and the federal government in Washington, D.C.

Christmas with Sunset Magazine


sunset-magazine-coverChances are that if you traveled on the Southern Pacific railroad in December of 1904 you would have spent some time thumbing through the pages of Sunset Magazine. The cover of this particular issue depicting Santa Claus embracing an Anglo cowboy and Hispanic farmer sharing a smoke not only captured the spirit of the season but also the American West at the turn of the 20th century.

The Southern Pacific Railroad created Sunset Magazine in 1898 in order to bolster tourism on it lines throughout the Southwest. Early editions focused on California destinations – the first issue detailing the wonders of Yosemite National Park. But the magazine’s scope quickly expanded to include much of the rest of the region. Artists such as Maynard Dixon and Will James provided dramatic and modern cover illustrations, while writers and poets including Mary Austin, Jack London, and Zane Grey published poems, short fiction, and travelogues. As historian Kevin Starr has noted, Sunset shaped the manner in which many westerners viewed and understood the very psychological center of the region in which they were pursuing their lives.

At once nostalgic while highly modern, Dixon’s work was distinctive. His earliest illustrations, of which the Christmas cover was one, included traditional Western themes done in a stripped down and vivid form – a perfect fit for Sunset’s look. Dixon’s 1905 cover, What an Indian Thinks depicting a lone Native American wrapped in a blanket standing on a mesa embodied a style he would return to later in his career, in paintings such as Earth Knower (1932) and Open Range (1942).

Few travel by rail through the Southwest today, but Sunset Magazine, now a part of the larger Time Warner empire, is still a reflection of the American West’s identity and Dixon’s vision of the region remains as poignant to today as ever. Modern but nostalgic, diverse yet unique, the Southwest is a special place, particularly during the holidays.

From all of us at Blogwest, have a happy holidays and see you all in the new year.

Thanksgiving Reflections on Standing Rock


Our colleague Elizabeth Sutton was recently in North Dakota at Standing Rock. She returned to Cedar Falls with a story that we share with you here. Posted today on, her article “Thanksgiving Reflections on Standing Rock” offers insight into the ongoing actions/reactions against Dakota Access, police forces, local communities, Native American tribes, and water protectors. She writes:

“What I observed at and around Standing Rock is symbolic in the sense that so many people—white, Native, young, poor—are disaffected, disenfranchised, alienated, and seek a sense of purpose. They seek empowerment through finding community in caring for each other and in direct action.”

With the national media hesitant to conduct in-depth reporting on this ongoing crisis, Sutton’s piece is a welcome contribution to the conversation.

Dr. Elizabeth Sutton is Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Northern Iowa. She is author of Capitalism and Cartography in the Dutch Golden Age (University of Chicago Press, 2015) and the forthcoming Art, Animals and Experience: Relationships to Canines and the Natural World (Routledge, 2017).

A Call for WHA Six Shooters Panel Participation

Are you experimenting with ways to use digital tools in your historical research? Do you teach western history with interactive digital media? Do you work in a museum, archive, or public agency that is curating digital archives or exhibits? If so, please consider sharing your ideas, successes, and challenges in a non-traditional session with WHA members who are keen to find out more about how to get started.

The WHA Technology Committee is seeking additional presenters for its 4th annual “Six-Shooters” session to be held on Sunday, October 23rd from 8:30-10:00 AM at the 2016 conference in St. Paul, MN. The session uses a lightning round format that allows each presenter six minutes and six slides to present their work. See the “Digital Frontiers” blog for reports on the previous presentations:

Should you either be planning to attend the conference and have some time on Sunday morning to share your work, or are close enough to come to St. Paul for the day and would like to present, please contact session chair Doug Seefeldt for more information ( If you are simply curious to find out what others are doing with technology in their teaching, research, or public history projects, please attend the session!

A Disappeared Resource


by Leisl Carr Childers

This semester, I have asked my students to explore the history of nuclear testing through the Nevada Test Site Oral History Project and related digital collections through the Department of Energy (DOE) and the Nevada Field Office of the National Nuclear Security Administration in Las Vegas, which operates the Nuclear Testing Archive and the OpenNet platform.

The Nuclear Testing Archive in Las Vegas, Nevada.

The Nuclear Testing Archive in Las Vegas, Nevada.

The online Library run by the Nevada Field Office, in conjunction with physical collections at the archive, has been one of the most important resources in my research and lately, in the classroom. Sadly, the online library is no longer available and it’s wealth of historic photographs, fact sheets, films, publications such as Origins of the Nevada Test SiteThe Nevada Test Site Guide, and the one affectionately called “The Big Book” (United States Nuclear Tests July 1945 to September 1992) are largely no longer available. As of this week, the library’s webpage only takes researchers here:

The current state of the web address

The current state of the web address

There is nothing more frustrating as a researcher, whether professor or student, than seeing critical resources and source material disappear. The new website for the Nevada National Security Site Library offers plenty of information on the administration’s programs over the past decade, but contains little historical material. The NNSA has a YouTube channel where some historic videos can be found, but the new Flickr page that features the agency’s photographs does not contain any images from the nuclear testing era between 1945 and 1992. The publications are nowhere to be found. Those are the resources that I and my students find most valuable. They were easy to access and they were in the public domain.

In a world filled with a multitude of digital resources, I find it remarkable that the loss of these images is so staggering. Sure, I can hunt for them on Wikipedia (entries such as Nevada Test Site and Sedan (nuclear test) feature some of these photographs) and I can email personnel at the testing archive and ask to have images sent to me, but that is less desirable than having them readily accessible all in one place. Besides, how will I or my students know what to ask for? Without the online collection, there is no more perusing through sequences of images that detail specific testing operations, no more directing students to sets of digital images that address the differences between atmospheric and underground testing, no sending them to the archive to discover the visual history of nuclear testing and its siting in Nevada.

As I sit here considering all that I no longer have access to and the ramifications this has on the course I am teaching and on my research, I am struggling to understand why this has happened. Does the administration and the DOE even know what they have done? Do they know how many of us have come to rely upon this collection? I can only hope that the email I sent to them today gets someone’s attention and the agency migrates those images and reports to the new website. I guess we will have to wait and see.

The Color of Our Parks – Public Lands History Center Host Panel on Race and the National Parks


plhccolorofourparksposterby Maggie Moss Jones

Americans experience their parks in many different ways, something not formally acknowledged until recently when the National Park Service identified relevancy and diversity as two of its primary initiatives for the 21st century. Scholars such as Lauret Savoy, Carolyn Finney, and Nina Roberts have written about the many ways in which the national park experience has been, and continues to be distinctive for people of color, involving patterns of exclusion and inaccessibility. Scholar Nina Roberts notes “what people [of color] do for leisure, historically, was not spending time in the outdoors, because they worked in the outdoors or they were killed in the outdoors.”

Slowly, the NPS has admitted that it needed to do more to bring diverse populations into national parks as visitors and employees. The 1991 National Park Service Vail Agenda sought to guide the parks into the 21st century and addressed the need to develop a diverse workforce, yet it said little about the needs and interests of people of color as visitors. More recently, the National Park Service signaled its deepening commitment to making the parks relevant and accessible to people of all races, ethnicities, ages, and genders. With park visitation in the 21st century reaching levels never seen before, park professionals must help diverse visitors connect to national parks while they continue to protect and preserve the parks’ natural and cultural resources.

In 2016, the National Park Service’s centennial year, the Public Lands History Center outreach program, the American West Program, seeks both to celebrate the NPS and to examine significant issues in the past, present, and future of our parks. On Thursday, September 29th, the American West Program will present a panel discussion on “The Color of Our Parks: Nature, Race, and Diversity in the National Park Service.” The panel speakers will share historical and contemporary perspectives on race and diversity as they affect experiences of nature, resource stewardship, and interpretation in the national parks.

Our goal for this event is to continue a conversation about diversity and the relevancy of our national parks. Event organizer and panelist, Ruth Alexander of Colorado State University’s History Department will examine patterns of erasure, exclusion, and resistance related to race and gender in the NPS in the early 20th century. Camille Dungy of Colorado State University’s Department of English will discuss her experiences as an African American female writing on and in our national parks. Colorado State University’s Gillian Bowser will share her experience as an African American woman working for the NPS in natural resource stewardship and her efforts to develop programs that will expose young people of color to careers in science in the NPS. Panelist Alexandra Hernandez of the NPS Intermountain Region will focus on NPS efforts to highlight grassroots efforts of diverse communities to tell their own stories in new park units, National Historic Landmarks and National Heritage Areas. While Hernandez looks at NPS accomplishments, Nina Roberts of San Francisco State University will ask if the NPS is willing to evolve to meet the challenges of cultural barriers and shifting cultural landscapes. As the Park Service enters its second century and addresses the challenges of opening national parks to diverse populations and making park units relevant to people of many backgrounds our panel speakers will engage the public in a meaningful discussion of park initiatives and challenges.

This public event will be held on Thursday, September 29th, from 7:30 to 9 pm in the CSU Morgan Library Event Hall. If you’re in the Colorado Front Range, we hope to see you at this essential discussion of our national parks.

Maggie Moss Jones is a graduate student at Colorado State University working with the Public Lands History Center to better understand national park experiences. She is an organizer of this event.

Review of the Range Podcast

Range Podcast episode 6

By Jason Heppler

I am a heavy consumer of podcasts. They’re perfect forms of entertainment and information, something that I can consume throughout the day during commutes, down time, or tasks that don’t require full focus. And while there are a good number of excellent podcasts focused on history, none come to mind that focus on the American West.

Earlier this year, journalists Julia Ritchey and Amy Westervelt launched the Range Podcast, a bi-weekly show telling “stories about the New American West.” The show focused on stories, issues, and entrepreneurs of the West. They tell stories, as they describe in their pilot episode, about the “outlaw spirit” of the West and opportunities to “reinvent yourself” in the “wide open spaces that define the West.” This year is the first season, an eight episode arc balancing commentary and interviews on a given topic.

Podcasts in general have a tendency to run long—many of my favorite shows run 90 to 120 minutes. Nationally-recognized shows like Radiolab and This American Life often run an hour or more. Not so for Range, whose shows run twenty-to-thirty minutes in length. The easily-digestible format of the episodes make for perfect commute-length listening or a chance to catch the show in those moments of short time.

Lance Gilman, owner of the Mustang Ranch. Photo by Winni Wintermeyer for Fortune

Lance Gilman, owner of the Mustang Ranch. Photo by Winni Wintermeyer for Fortune

What is “new” about this West? For western historians the topics might feel familiar: issues about race and progressivism, sport history, cowboy poetry, the sustainable food movement, and medical marijuana made up just a few of the topics this season. This isn’t the stereotypical West dismissively derided as “flyover country,” nor is the focus exclusively on those urban centers often associated with the West, like Denver, San Francisco, or Phoenix. As someone who studies western high-tech boomtowns, their bonus episode “The 21st Century Prospector” on efforts to turn the hillsides of rural Nevada into the 21st century’s Silicon Valley illustrates the appeal of the show to anyone interested in thinking about the pasts and futures of the region. In some ways rural Nevada parallels mid-twentieth century Silicon Valley. The epicenter of Silicon Valley’s urban growth, stretching from Palo Alto to San José, was an unlikely place for high technology to emerge. The future boomtowns of central California were rural farming and ranching communities prior to the flood of Cold War funding that transformed the San Francisco Bay Area into a major center of research and development. In Nevada, the flow of capital is slightly different, fueled instead by an ambitious real estate developer, Lance Gilman, motivated by profit rather than military research. Nevertheless, just as the builders of Silicon Valley envisioned this postindustrial activity as the future for California’s economy, promoters in Nevada see high-tech as a pathway into new avenues of economic development that’s less reliant on gaming and entertainment. And when Telsa decides to build a gigantic factory for manufacturing batteries—and spending $5 billion in construction and creating 6,500 new jobs—it’s little wonder why states hitch their futures on high-tech. (There are downsides to that, but you’ll have to wait for my book to wrap up to learn more about that.)

Perhaps most enthralling, for me at least, is that they take the region’s distinctiveness seriously. The region does carry with it a kind of uniqueness we call “western,” a historical process roughly shared throughout the region just as the Northeast might be said to have a “New England feel” or that we can ascribe to the southern states a “southern hospitality.” But while it’s fair to generally refer to area west of the 100th meridian as “The West,” we shouldn’t lose sight of the idea that the West is, as David Wrobel once put it, many wests. Perhaps I’m expecting too much from short podcast episodes, but the West contains distinctive subregions defined by their environment, identity, and culture. Are there differences, for example, in ski seasons in Nevada, Utah, California, and Colorado? And if so, what does that tell us about the sport and its place in the West? Furthermore, their show is an artifact of their location: since they’re based out of Reno, many of the episodes tend to focus on Nevada and the surrounding region. But the Great Basin is quite different, both in historical experience and present-day, from the Pacific Northwest or areas of the Southwest. It may be outside the bounds of what Ritchey and Westervelt seek to achieve, but I would love to see future episodes touching on their topics across western subregions.

I’d also call on the show to provide more historical context. It’s not the case that many of these themes are suddenly new to the 21st century. Many of these topics have long histories in the West: ethnic diversity and racial strife, urbanization, new industrial activity, battles over land use, the degradation of the environment—the “new” sometimes looks a lot like the “old.” Many of the issues they bring up this season have roots in historical patterns worth touching on, even briefly, to give a better sense of what exactly is “new” about this West.

These slight criticisms aside, I loved the show and look forward to next season. Do yourself a favor and give the show a listen. And if you have an interesting story to pitch, send it their way.

A Call for Conservation — the National Park Service at 100


By Michael Childers

nps_centennial_logoToday marks the centennial of the National Park Service. Established in 1916 to “conserve the scenery and the national and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations,” the Park Service has grown into one of the most beloved federal agencies in the nation’s history. Its 100th birthday should be cause for a nationwide celebration. Yet, this year could not have gotten off to a worse start for the Park Service.

News broke in March that the Delaware North Company had trademarked the names many of Yosemite’s iconic buildings, including the Ahwahnee and Curry Village, after losing its bid to remain the park’s sole concessioner. The naked money grab enraged the public, especially after the park was forced to change the name of every building while waiting for the courts to settle the issue. Then in May, reports of the Park Service’s low employee morale, caused by the agency’s chronic funding issues, reliance on seasonal employees, and an entrenched leadership flooded the Internet. That was soon followed by stories of widespread sexual harassment at Grand Canyon National Park, which led to a barrage of accounts of unbridled sexism throughout the agency and calls for Director Johnathan Jarvis to step down. Jarvis did not help matters by failing to gain approval before publishing a book on the national parks, a violation of ethics.

Even so, such controversies did little to slacken the torrent of visitors traveling to one of their 413 national units this past summer. Early counts suggest that visitor numbers will swell well past last year’s record breaking 305 million people. And that is a real problem.

As the chronically underfunded agency grapples with how to leave the parks, monuments, and other sites under its care “unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations” it simply cannot meet the challenges of hundreds of millions of visitors inundating the parks, particularly those units relatively near large metropolitan areas, while meeting its scientific and preservationist mandate.

find-your-parkMaking matters more difficult is the National Park Service’s charitable partner the National Park Foundation’s “Find Your Park” campaign. To celebrate the NPS’s centennial, the campaign calls for people to visit their parks, and then through a clever social media promotion share their stories and photographs to promote visitation. In addition with its online campaign, the National Park Foundation commissioned the documentary “National Park Adventure” to commemorate the NPS’s anniversary. Produced by the same team that filmed the 2008 documentary Grand Canyon Adventure, National Park Adventure can simply be described as muscular white people in spandex climbing things in national parks.

IMG_2131All of this has caused people to find their parks in overwhelming numbers. Upwards of five thousand come to watch each Old Faithful eruption, making the area around the geyser appear more a rock concert than a natural wonder. Further south, Rocky Mountain National Park has become so crowded that the park took the unprecedented move of telling people not to come to the park if they could not arrive by 8:30 in the morning. Most units in or near metropolitan areas are experiencing similar problems, leading to resource loss. Following climate change, visitation has become the primary environmental issue facing the Park Service.

Furthermore, facing a $12 billion backlog in maintenance, the Park Service has had to rely heavily on corporate involvement for its centennial celebration efforts – including outdoor retailer REI, Disney, and Subaru, each of which have used the anniversary to market their own brands.

Mission 66This is not the first time in the Park Service’s history the agency has faced such problems. Following the end of the Second World War millions of Americans jumped into their family car and headed to their favorite national park. Visitor numbers exploded. Yosemite alone welcomed 641,767 visitors, exceeding the record set in 1941 by nearly 50,000. Underfunded due to the Korean War and a general reluctance by Congress to embrace anything that smacked of the New Deal, park infrastructure including roads, campgrounds, and visitor centers, proved unable to meet the demand. Bernard DeVoto’s famous call to close the parks captured the era’s frustrations over a lack of coherent solution to twin problem of visitation and adequate facilities.

The Park Service’s solution however was a ten-year capital campaign called Mission 66 for its planned completion on the NPS’s fiftieth anniversary. Congress funneled millions of dollars into the parks, building new visitor centers, modernizing roads and camp sites, and improving other infrastructure including sewage and electrical.

As National Park architectural historian Ethan Carr points out, while Mission 66 reinvented the national park system and the National Park Service, along with the national park idea, to meet the exigencies of the postwar America. But by emphasizing capital construction over social and environmental concerns, the program provided a one-dimensional solution to complex social and environmental problems facing the park system – a lesson the Park Service should have learned from for its centennial.

The agency and its partners should have seized upon the 100th anniversary to engage the public in a broader conversation over what the next one hundred years should look like by launching a new campaign like Mission 66 to preserve and define what the next century will look like in the national parks. Rather than “Find Your Park” there should have been a “Fund Your Park” campaign promoting a way of not only solving Congress’s reluctance to adequately fund the parks, but also to provide a vision for how to face the complex social and environmental problems of the future.

Brown vs. Board of Education National Historic Site

Brown vs. Board of Education National Historic Site

Such a campaign could have helped foster the national conversation on race by bringing visitors to its exemplary work at place such as Manzanar and Brown vs. Board of Education National   Historic Sites, drawn the connections between cultural and natural resources at places like the Elwha River in Olympic National Park, and build deep emotional ties to all national park units by redefining what national parks could be to this and future generations.

While it is easy to lament the lost opportunity, such a conversation is still possible. In many parks and monuments it is already happening. Perhaps today is a good time to start having it more overtly so that the next 100 years will be as historic as the past 100.