William Travis


My research examines the interaction of environment and society, in two main realms: (I.) social response to climate change and extreme events; and (II.) coupled social and natural systems, including land use and anthropogenic transformations of land cover, with a focus on the American West. Here are some representative projects:

I: Human Dimensions of Climate Change and Extreme Events

Extreme Climate Change: Recent climate studies and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) point to the potential, albeit small, for extreme climate change over the next century as anthropogenic global warming ramps up and geo-physical "tipping points" are encountered.

A proposed Climate Change Severity Index
A proposed Climate Change
Severity Index

While the bulk of impacts and adaptation studies should logically focus on the more likely, less extreme, scenarios, some attention must be paid to the possibility of severe, abrupt, and quite disruptive climate change. How will social systems respond to the threat of extreme climate change? What can we learn from human response to typical natural risks, like hurricanes and floods, that would help us anticipate human response to, say, rapid sea level rise (if Greenland melts), mega-droughts, and super-hurricanes? Do we need a rapid climate change warning system? This working paper addresses such questions:

Working paper (PDF): "Propositions on the Social Response to Extreme Climate Change."

Climate Change, Adaptation, and Land Use: If the IPCC assessments are correct, then at least modest global warming is likely to continue for decades and will inevitably affect regional resource and development systems. This working paper examines the links between global warming and land use in the Interior West.

Working paper (PDF): "Global Warming and Western Land Use"

The Impacts of Global Warming on Aspen, Colo.: This project, funded by the City of Aspen, Colo., examined the likely effects of global warming on the central Rocky Mountains, with particular attention to snowpack and skiing. The Center of the American West in cooperation with the Aspen Global Change Institute, Stratus Consulting (Boulder, CO), and the Rural Planning Institute (Durango, CO), used projections of climate and snowpack to assess the effects on skiing, water resources, and the local economy. Post-Doc Hannah Gosnell and I focused on adjustments to climate change among ski managers and water users, detailing ways that they might adapt to changes in seasonal snow cover and runoff, and how the local economy might adjust as seasons shifted. Click here to access the full report.


II: Land Transformations in the American West

The American West is the nation's fastest-growing region, and development is rapidly spreading across the region's plains, mountains and deserts. My research addresses the patterns and driving forces of land transformation, and the consequences for ecological and social health.

Exurban development patterns south of Bozeman, Montana
Exurban development patterns south of Bozeman, Montana

Rural landscapes are especially undergoing profound changes with resort development and the emergence of an exurban land use pattern in non-metropolitan areas. This interest started with a grant from the U.S. Forest Service to study land use and cover change on the forest fringe in Colorado's mountains (with two colleagues, David Theobald and Hannah Gosnell). We hypothesized that private land adjacent to federal lands was undergoing the greatest change, from traditional ownership and use to amenity ownership and use, with implications for land management and ecological processes like fire and wildlife migration. Theobald developed a land use simulation model that he then applied to various Rocky Mountain landscapes.

Land Use Change

This led to an effort to project land use trends for the entire American West, called the Western Futures Project (funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation). The "Futures" team goal was to create detailed, credible projections of land development for use in ecological assessments and as an outreach tool meant to help people visualize patterns of growth and development. The extrapolation of development in the West out to the year 2040 is available on the Western Futures website.

Related publications:

W.R. Travis (2007): New Geographies of the American West: Land Use and Changing Patterns of Place (Island Press).

W.R. Travis, David Theobald, Geneva Mixon and Thomas Dickinson: "Western Futures: A Look into the Patterns of Land Use and Future Development in the American West." Report from the Center No. 6. Center of the American West, University of Colorado, Boulder.

W.R. Travis, D.M. Theobald, and D. Fagre(2002) Transforming the Rockies: Human Forces, Settlement Patterns, and Ecosystem Effects. In Jill S. Baron, ed., Rocky Mountain Futures: An Ecological Perspective pp. 1-24. (Washington, DC: Island Press).

P.N. Limerick, W.R. Travis and T. Scoggin: "Boom and Bust in the American West." Report from the Center No. 1, Center of the American West, University of Colorado, Boulder. 21 pp.

W.E. Riebsame (2001) "Geographies of the New West." In P. Brick, S. Van de Wetering, and D. Snow, eds. Beyond the Great Divide: Collaborative Conservation and the New Environmental Debate. (Washington, DC: Island Press).

Theobald, D.M., N.T. Hobbs, T. Bearly, J. Zack, T. Shenk, and W.E. Riebsame (1999): Incorporating Biological Information into Local Land-use Decision Making: Designing a System for Conservation Planning. Landscape Ecology 15: 35-45.

W. E. Riebsame, general editor, et al. (1997) Atlas of the New West. (New York: W.W. Norton).

W. E. Riebsame, H. Gosnell, and D. M. Theobald (1996) "Land Use and Landscape Change in the U.S. Rocky Mountains I: Theory, Scale and Pattern." Mountain Research and Development 16: 395-405.

D.M. Theobald, H. Gosnell, and W.E. Riebsame (1996) "Land Use and Landscape Change in the U.S. Rocky Mountains II: A Case Study of the East River Valley, Colorado."16: 407-418.

Land Ownership Dynamics

In another landscape change research effort, with colleagues Hannah Gosnell (now at Oregon State University), Julia Haggerty (now with Headwaters Economics in Bozeman, MT), Jessica Lage (now at UC-Berkeley), and Thomas Dickinson (CU-Institute of Behavioral Science), we examined patterns of changing rural land ownership and use, particularly transfers of large ranch properties.

Related publications:

Hannah Gosnell, J.H. Haggerty and W.R. Travis (2006): "Ranchland Ownership Change in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem". Society and Natural Resources 19: 743-758.

Julia H. Haggerty and W.R. Travis (2006): Out of Administrative Control: Absentee Owners, Resident Elk, and the Shifting Nature of Wildlife Management in Southwestern Montana. Geoforum 37: 816-830.

H. Gosnell and W. R. Travis (2005): "Ranchland Ownership Dynamics in the Rocky Mountain West." Rangeland Ecology and Management 58: 191-198.

W.R. Travis, Julia Hobson and Hannah Gosnell Schneider (2002) "Ranchland Dynamics in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem." Center of the American West, University of Colorado-Boulder. 23 pp.