UNLV and the Public Lands
Our historic preservation programs emphasize the relationship between natural and built environments with a focus on the vast public lands that surround UNLV. A ten-year series of projects in Yosemite National Park enabled faculty and thirty graduate students from three different College of Liberal Arts programs to collaborate. We all came together to see how we could apply our shared interest in the intersections of nature and culture toward public history research and practice. Starting in 2005, when Professor Andy Kirk was one of two scholars advising the NPS on the controversial National Register Nomination of the world renown Camp 4 (the rock climbers campground) UNLV became a partner in a major effort to inventory, revise and expand the National Register Listings in the park.
The ultimately successful listing of Camp 4 captured many of the themes our program works on. Kirk and the lead public history graduate student on the Yosemite National Register projects, Charles Palmer, wrote an article on the experience and the issues captured by the process. “When Nature Becomes Culture,” Western Historical Quarterly 37:4 (Winter, 2006), tells the story and explains one of the core philosophies that drives our efforts in the public lands.
Advising on Camp 4 led to the remarkable opportunity to research a new Multiple Property Document to aid in the preservation of Yosemite’s 600 plus historic resources and cultural landscapes. The YOSE MPD included 20 new individual National Register Nominations of a wide range of critical historical resources a new framework to aid researchers, NPS officials and preservationists in future efforts to preserve the history of the nation’s first national park.
Following the MPD the UNLV Public History Program took on an even bigger project with the Administrative History of Yosemite. Over thirty UNLV public history students worked on this innovative effort to collaboratively create an innovative history informed by the latest insights from environmental history, western history, park history, cultural landscape architecture and management. Collaboration at all stages of this complex project was always the goal and demonstrates how we do public history at UNLV. The Yosemite Administrative history worked like all our major projects. At the beginning of any major public history project we design a year-long graduate seminar sequence to introduce students to the topic, broader context and secondary literature related to the project. The “Yosemite Seminar” started this way with public history students enrolled in a fall seminar on the National Parks where we collectively studied park history and worked collectively on a research design plan for the research seminar that followed that next spring. The students spent two semesters launching the project, working with senior park staff to learn about what purpose our research would ultimately serve in the park. Some students conducted research in park archives, the National Archives, the Bancroft Library and repositories while others conducted oral histories and boots on the ground surveys of sites. That summer we assembled a smaller team under the direction of a lead graduate student with expertise in park history and public history. This team spent time that summer in the park fine tuning the work done by the seminars. Over the next two years the lead student became the lead author working with our former student who had graduated and accepted a job as Historian for Yosemite. Weaving projects directly into course work linked to comprehensive exams, thesis and dissertations is at the heart of our pedagogy.
Since the founding of the program in 2000 we’ve completed over 30 National Register Nominations, Cultural Landscape studies, Multiple Property Documents, Historic Resource Studies, Administrative Histories and Determinations of Eligibility throughout the Mojave and Great Basin region. Las Vegas is one of the most strategic hubs of public lands research in the U.S.. Nevada has the highest concentration of public lands of any state and every land management agency has a major presence here. We collaborate with all of them to work on projects throughout the southwest so consider our program if you have an interest in research and working in the federal landscape of the American West.
Walking Box Ranch
In the late 1920s, the silent screen star Clara Bow and her cowboy film star husband Rex Bell built and ran a cattle ranch in the Mojave Desert. Named Walking Box Ranch after the industry term for a movie camera, the site remains remarkably intact and a wonderful laboratory for the study of desert environments and the cultural history of the American West.
Our public history program has been central in the restoration and interpretation of the historic property. Our direct involvement began in 2004 when Andy Kirk received a Saving America’s Treasures grant of $250,000 to stabilize the property. Kirk work closely with Senator Harry Reid’s staff and regional historic and resource organizations helped integrate research efforts at the ranch with similar efforts in Goffs, CA and in the Mojave National Preserve.
The ranch is a site of research and teaching for our public history program. Between 2004 and the present, faculty and graduate students completed research resulting in the listing of the property on the National Register of Historic Places. More recently, in Fall 2010, our students cataloged a collection of tools used on the property in the 1930s; we wrote condition reports for the dozen antique Navajo rugs that were previously stored and displayed on site; we conducted walking tours and developed lesson plans for elementary school kids.
From a teaching standpoint, imagine a discussion of silent film in the enormous great room of a ranch built by Clara Bow—the genre’s “It” girl who fled the biz to become a cattle rancher with her B-list, Hollywood husband? You can’t make history more interesting than that.
In December 2010, we hosted a day-long event at the ranch that celebrated the material culture found on site.