The Public Lands History Center (PLHC) is a special unit of the History Department at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. Since 2007 it has partnered with students, communities, and land management agencies of all types to document the history of the nation’s public lands. While the PLHC’s work reaches beyond the Rocky Mountain West, its efforts within Colorado are also noteworthy, including collaborations with Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, and city governments.
In 2007, with seed funding from the College of Liberal Arts, CSU historians Mark Fiege, Janet Ore, Ruth Alexander, Gregory Smoak, and archaeologist Jason LaBelle founded the Center for Public Lands History and Archaeology. Linked by a shared appreciation for histories of public lands, the scholars envisioned an intellectual community that provided students with practical and applied opportunities for professional development. Their goal was “to improve current park managers’ and the general public’s historical knowledge about specific national parks and the regions they inhabit.” Committed to developing a culture of collaboration, the founders pooled resources for the benefit of the center’s participants, especially students.
Initially, the center had no full-time staff, but the founders soon saw a clear need for at least one staff member. In 2007 it hired a permanent Program Manager, CSU History alumna Maren Bzdek. Bzdek developed much of the PLHC’s administrative framework and was the lead researcher on some of its more ambitious projects, including the restoration of the Johnson Space Center’s Apollo Mission Control Room, completed in 2019.
In 2008 Fiege won the William E. Morgan Chair of Liberal Arts position, giving much of his award to support the center’s work. The PLHC flourished with this newest infusion, and in Spring 2010, the center was reborn as the Public Lands History Center. The reconfigured name reflected a research emphasis on history. Over the next several years, additional CSU history faculty, including Adrian Howkins, Jared Orsi, and Sarah Payne, joined the PLHC.
In 2011 the PLHC held “National Parks Beyond the Nation,” which brought together scholars from every continent to discuss public lands history and management in a global context. The meeting resulted in a published anthology edited by PLHC council members, National Parks Beyond the Nation: Global Perspectives on ‘America’s Best Idea.’ The book was the first of several works published in the PLHC’s Public Lands History book series with the University of Oklahoma Press, launched in 2015.
In collaboration with the CSU Water Resources Archive’s “Water Tables” event, the PLHC also co-sponsored “Coping with Extremes,” a western water symposium held in conjunction with the archive’s annual Water Tables event. Four noted historians of the American West, Patricia Limerick, Louis Warren, Jay Taylor, and Donald Jackson, gathered for a public conversation about how water shaped histories in the West, ranging from the Ghost Dances of the 1890s to the collapse of a Los Angeles dam in the 1920s.
The PLHC’s work was attracting national attention, but new challenges loomed on the horizon. Business was booming. By 2012 the Center had drawn in more than $800,000 in funded projects. These projects mostly came from National Park Service (NPS) units in the American West. The Cooperative Ecosystems Studies Units (CESU) National Network recognized Fiege, Ore, Alexander, Orsi, and Bzdek for the PLHC’s outstanding contributions to ecosystems studies. But the PLHC stared down a sustainability crisis brought by the end of Fiege’s Morgan Chair funding in 2012.
After 2012, the PLHC adapted to weather a less certain financial future. It changed its leadership structure and sought competitive internal and external funding opportunities. It also continued its work with the National Park Service and partnered with Fort Collins Utilities, local irrigation companies, the US Forest Service, and the Colorado Agricultural Experiment Station. In 2013 Alexander took on the role of the PLHC Council Chair, marking a new era in the Center’s leadership model. The changeover coincided with a revised mission statement emphasizing collaborative values: “shared authority, reciprocity, public engagement, and a non-hierarchical approach to knowledge production.”
Reflecting its updated mission, the PLHC launched two public engagement programs. One was Parks as Portals to Learning (PPL). Fiege and two resource managers at Rocky Mountain National Park, Ben Baldwin and Ben Bowbowski, developed the field workshop together. The program immersed students in the realities of resource management at Rocky Mountain National Park and provided an unvarnished look at the rewards and challenges of working there. The other initiative was reimagining the American West Program (AWP). Begun in the 1970s as a summer series of interdisciplinary lectures, films, and other intellectual events, the program had been derelict since 2004. In 2014 the PLHC revived AWP as a forum for scholars and land managers to discuss and share stories related to the West’s public lands with the public.
In 2016 the PLHC was recognized as one of CSU’s Programs of Research and Scholarly Excellence (PRSE), owing to its “standard for excellence in research, teaching and service.” Through the PRSE designation, the PLHC won competitive internal university funding and rebuilt its programming and staff, developing a research fellowship program and reinstating the program manager position. After a national search, the Council selected Dr. Brenda Todd. Dr. Todd helped stabilize the Center’s operations in preparation for its next chapter. She departed the PLHC in winter 2018.
In 2019 the PLHC appointed Ariel Schnee as interim Program Manager and later hired her permanently. Under Schnee, the PLHC continued its research agenda and expanded its programming and public engagement. In 2019 CSU history faculty Liesl Carr Childers and Michael Childers joined the PLHC Council and created new partnerships with the US Forest Service and the Office of Engagement and Extension. That same year the PLHC also welcomed Adam Thomas, teaching faculty member and founder of Historitecture, a Colorado-based historic preservation consultancy, to the council.
As of 2022, the PLHC has executed well over $2,000,000 in funded projects, making lasting contributions to public lands scholarship and management. It provided training to a new generation of professionals within the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the US Forest Service, as well as opportunities for historic preservationists and planners working in local and state governments and non-profit entities, cultural resource managers, and academic historians. Thousands have attended its American West Program events, and the Parks as Portals to Learning field workshop is entering its tenth year.
In 2019 grant funding from the Henry B. Luce Foundation resulted in an innovative, integrated research and public outreach program that partners the PLHC with communities to assist them in telling under-represented public lands histories. While the PLHC has evolved according to changing conditions, it has maintained a belief in the power of public lands histories to inform and connect people.