The Fabric of Surveying in America: Missouri Boundary Dispute, PLSS Critique

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Settlement of Boundary Dispute in Missouri
Part 1
Robert E. Myers, LS, PE

Editor’s Note: For background information on the three PLSS articles presented here, please see the Editorial on p. 6.

There has been a lot of publicity in the last year about a boundary dispute between the United States Forest Service (USFS) and local landowners in southern Missouri. The headlines read "Bill Will Settle Property Fight." News articles reveal that a private landowner was maligned by the big bad government and that Congress has passed a law to protect the private landowner. It makes good material for TV campaign advertisements for the local congressmen. Surveyors naturally pick up on these headlines and are quick to ask whether the rhetoric is justified and how the legislation affects the current practice of surveying.

The original government surveys in this area of Barry and Stone counties were conducted by the General Land Office (G LO) between 1821 and 1849. These surveys have been recognized to be in accordance with the government surveying standards of that day. All of the land was eventually conveyed by patent to private ownership in accordance with these GLO surveys. The administration and maintenance of the PLSS was taken over by the state of Missouri and statutes were enacted to prescribe the use of the system and the procedures for preserving the system. In the 1930s the state of Missouri, by statute, consented to give the United States the authority to purchase land in the state. Under this authority the USFS and other federal agencies have acquired extensive land holdings. The Mark Twain National Forest is the land administered by the USFS in this area. The Little Rock District of the Corps of Engineers (COE) began the development of Table Rock Reservoir in the 1950s. The COE entered into about 30 contracts with private surveyors to survey the proposed boundary of the reservoir. These surveys were conducted in the 1970s and 1980s by private surveyors licensed in Missouri. The USFS, as a result of its responsibility to manage its property, also conducts surveys of its boundaries. In the mid-1970s the USFS started making these surveys using members of their staff who were state registered surveyors as well as contracting private state registered surveyors. Both the COE and the USFS recognize that in accordance with both federal and state law "the boundaries of the United States public land survey in Missouri are unchangeable" and ". . . corners established by the original government survey must stand as the true corner . . ." (Chapter 60.305 RSMo.)

A Fact Sheet prepared by the COE for the legislation before Congress states "The surveyors found many of the GLO markers but those not found in the then undeveloped and rugged terrain were computed and secondary markers set to allow the survey to proceed." The U S FS surveyors state that they have recovered over 40 original PLSS corners that were not found or used by the COE surveyors. They also contend that in some instances the COE surveyors did not use the statutory procedures to reestablish lost and obliterated corners. The statutes and case laws in Missouri are very clear. Boundaries must be based on the corners of the original GLO surveys or, if lost, corners reestablished by statutory procedures. It is now clearly evident that the difference in the locations of the United States PLSS corners has resulted in boundary line locations that are materially different. The COE acknowledges that they have experienced approximately 736 encroachment problems on Table Rock Reservoir since 1965; this is before the later USFS surveys.

The use of the original GLO government corners recovered by the USFS instead of the corners incorrectly set or reestablished by the COE is the primary source of the boundary disputes. Unfortunately, it is the private landowner that feels maligned. There seems to be approximately 36 parcels in dispute. The owners of these parcels have relied upon the corners established by the COE to survey and locate improvements to their properties and now are being told that the property they own is not where they thought it was located. More important, they are told that the improvements that they made encroach on the property of the USFS and that they need to purchase sufficient land to clear the encroachment. These landowners appealed directly to their congressman and senators. Meetings were held between the USFS and the COE to resolve the problem but no agreement was reached and as a result legislation was introduced in both the House and Senate to provide a process to resolve the disputes.

On July 22, 2004, bill S.1167 (Public Law 108-279) was passed by the 108th Congress and signed into law by the President "to resolve boundary conflicts in Barry and Stone Counties in the State of Missouri." The law states: "The Secretary of the Army and the Secretary of Agriculture shall cooperatively undertake actions to rectify boundary conflicts and landownership claims against Federal lands resulting from subsequent Federal land surveys and correctly reestablish corners of the Public Land Survey System in Barry and Stone Counties, Missouri, and shall attempt to do so in a manner which imposes the least cost and inconvenience to affected private landowners."

Subsequent Federal land surveys are defined in the law as "any Federal land survey made after the original land surveys that are inconsistent with the Public Land Survey System".

The law requires that: "A qualifying claimant shall notify the appropriate Secretary in writing of a claim that a boundary conflict exists with the Federal land administered by the appropriate secretary."

This notice will include "A land survey plat and legal description of the affected land . . . certified by a Missouri State licensed professional land surveyor and done in conformity with the Public Land Survey System and in compliance with the applicable State and Federal land surveying laws."

The notice shall also shall include "Information relating to the claim of ownership of Federal lands, including supporting documentation showing that the landowner relied on a subsequent Federal land survey due to actions by the Federal Government in making or approving surveys for the Table Rock Reservoir."

The law places a time limit on this action: "[the] qualifying claimant shall submit the notice and information . . . within 15 years after the date of the enactment of this Act. . ."

The law allows for the appropriate secretary to convey federal land by a quitclaim deed to resolve the dispute. It also allows the appropriate secretary to confirm Federal ownership where there are federal improvements or other uses on land subject to dispute. The secretaries are allowed to compensate the private landowner for the land that is retained by the federal owner. The private landowner does not have to pay for any land that is obtained by quitclaim, in fact the appropriate secretary is directed to pay all administrative cost "and reimburse the qualifying claimant for reasonable out-of-pocket survey cost necessary to establish a claim . . . "

In conclusion, it must be pointed out that this law only applies to boundary conflicts between the private landowner and the USFS or the COE when the landowner relied on an inconsistent COE land survey and only in Barry and Stone Counties in Missouri. The law does reaffirm that the original corners and correctly reestablished corners of the PLSS are to be used to convey propert
y. In the 19 6 0s, 70s and 80s many other reservoir boundaries were surveyed by federal agencies. This legislation does not apply to any similar boundary disputes resulting from those surveys. The law does not address any of the potential boundary disputes that private landowners may have with other private or governmental owners that may be the result from the inconsistent C O E surveys. Lastly, the law does not establish any responsibility or procedure for the federal government to conduct a dependent resurvey of the public land survey system in this area.

Bob Myers is a consulting professional surveyor and a retired Missouri State Land Surveyor.

A Critique of the Public Land Survey System
Part 2
Fred Roeder, LS

Our Public Land Survey System (Rectangular Survey System) is such an intricate part of our culture that any critique of it comes close to the condemnation of motherhood and apple pie. To make it even worse, the System did admirably what it was designed to do, to allow the government to disperse of millions of acres of public land in great haste and at fire sale prices, without giving much thought to the consequences. It has, of course, been criticized for reasons that have nothing to do with surveying (e.g., social consequences), but as a surveyor I will limit myself to survey matters. I proceed on the assumption that the reader is familiar with the System and its terminology, and from here on will simply call it "the System".

The System, with all the advantages it has for record keeping, has two serious flaws: it allows for the conveyance of land without a survey, and no corner set in the interior of a section will ever be correct in the sense that it represents the point called for in the conveyance by the government. I am well aware of the fact that after a township has been subdivided the government calls the land "surveyed", an illusion and a very expensive one at that, as a mountain of court records can attest. On paper, one could hardly have devised a better method of describing real estate, and, had its purpose been only to allow speculation in a commodity, I would praise it to high heaven. Unfortunately, there are millions of the common folks, who bought and use it for the proverbial pursuit of happiness, and who want to know exactly what is "theirs". For the purpose of identifying what "theirs" is, the System leaves much to be desired, to put it mildly, and to avoid saying that it stinks.

It seems never to have occurred to the designers that such an extensive grid system, with its elaborate and completely unnecessary rules for subdivision of sections, not only would be extremely expensive to establish, but, given the parsimony of government, would quickly become bastardized into the thing it is today and will remain. The establishment of the first sectionized township in 1786 should have been a red flag for things to come. It did not take long, even for the most idealistic land office bigwig, to discover that the plats the surveyors prepared bore little resemblance to what they established on the ground. In the real world a surveyor would have to be nuts to run his lines in the manner in which they appear in the field notes; topography and convenience–not government rules–governed the order in which he established his corners, especially in the rough terrain of the West. What was intended to be square miles turned into octagons of every description. The land office solution: the corners are official, and are correct in position by definition; a great idea, if only they had extended that same courtesy to the corners set by subsequent surveyors.

The foolish requirement for a surveyor to return to the land office a standardized set of field notes had unhappy consequences. The records of how and in what order the surveyor set his corners are lost to us; all we know is what the land office forced him to put on paper. In other words, the official field notes are only an index of lines and corners and tell us nothing about the actual survey procedures. Yet the re-establishment of lost corners by proportionate measurement is based on those fictitious notes. I use the term `fictitious’ only in the sense that the sequence of events the notes describe is fictitious, even though all required corners have been established.

But it is the rules of subdivision of sections where the System is most objectionable. The contrived mathematics of intersections and midpoints would almost be funny except for the sad reality that they turned into a surveyor’s and landowner’s nightmare, and continue to do so. These rules make sense only to the most hardboiled bureaucrat and almost guarantee land disputes. To accept the often considerable errors in the location of section corners and 1/4 section corners as correct by definition and then proceed with a mathematical concept of midpoints and intersection of lines, all of which exists independently of any surveyor’s ability to locate on the ground, makes as much sense as pacing a distance between two points and measuring the last two feet with a micrometer. We know today that there are few sections, if any, where these points were established with mathematical precision, but even if they had been, the monuments set to mark their location are nobody’s title points. A call for a midpoint is not the same as a call for a monument, even if by chance that monument has been set at the true midpoint. Did the government intend to say to the owner of say the SE 1/4 of section 10: "Three of your property corners have been set and are correct by definition, but your NW corner is located where the BLM is going to set a brass cap, 150 years from last Monday"?

Like it or not, surveyors and usage have turned the interior of sections into a metes-and-bounds system, just like the subdivision of townships turned into a metes-and-bounds system. Nobody in his right mind would call the average township either a grid or rectangular, except for want of a better term, there is nothing rectangular about the entire System. Those who believe that it is may want to refresh their vocabulary by looking into a mathematical dictionary. The designers of the System should have, and probably did, recognize that fact. So why not design it as a metes-and-bounds system from the very beginning?

There could have been a better solution and still avoid the crazy quilt pattern of land ownership found in the colonial East. By insisting that all lines are to be straight and follow more or less cardinal directions, quadrilateral tracts of approximately fortyacre size could have been created and the general appearance of the present system maintained. The center of section could have been set from any 1/4 section corner at the surveyor’s discretion by measuring 2640 feet, more or less, into a cardinal direction, more or less, as many surveyors did anyway. The 1/16-corners could have been established in similar fashion, as many surveyors did anyway. The government should have patented no piece of property, no matter how small, unless it had first been surveyed by official survey, and all property corners monumented with the same "correct by definition" disclaimer as the exterior corners. After the exterior of the sections had been established, not a foot of land need have been surveyed unless it was to become somebody’s title line. This would have eliminated the sorry situation whereby the owner of the smallest portion of the section needs the most expensive survey. By numbering or lettering the tracts so created, the error prone and tiresome legal descriptions by aliquot parts would never have arisen. The small extra cost could have been recovered by a surcharge to the price of the land.

For those who correctly point out that there are a myriad of subdivided sections in the country whose surveys have never been challenged, where occupation lines have been accepted by owners and surveyors alike since the day of original occupation, I say: I made my point. In much of the
country owners and surveyors have long since abandoned any attempt to match the property boundaries with the rules of subdivision, and have in fact created a metes-and-bounds occupation to everybody’s satisfaction, and woe to whoever tries to mess with it. If that end result was the intent of the designers of the System, they sure had a Rube Goldberg method of going about it.

Any survey system is only as good as the ability to maintain it. Continuing and perpetual maintenance of the corners it established should have been official government policy from the start, cost to be added to the property taxes. Any destruction of corners, willfully or accidental, should have resulted in re-establishment by the government, cost to be born by the adjoining land owners and added to their taxes. This would have resulted in few corners ever disappearing. The land office, not the county clerks and title companies should have been the keepers of property records, the latter owe their existence in any case only to the unholy mess we have created in our property records. If any conveyance of land without a previous officially monumented survey were illegal, if all such conveyances were a land office record along with any and all encumbrances, why would anybody need a title company? It would have taken a little longer to buy and sell land but what was the rush? Was the immigrant’s dream to own land and pass it on to his descendants not worth the extra time and effort? Would it have caused American democracy to come crashing down?

All of this is of course Monday-morning quarterbacking. The purpose of this article is not to condemn the System but to point out the warts of "the greatest survey system ever created", a slogan that I put into the same category as "the world’s greatest hamburger". Having said that much, and in conclusion, I hasten to remind the reader that burning a heretic writer on the stake in the town square is no longer considered to be in good taste.

Fred Roeder came to the U.S. from East Germany in 1957 with an engineering degree. He served in the U.S. Army, then worked as a geodetic surveyor. Roeder became a registered surveyor in NM, AZ, AR, and OK, states where he also served as a cadastral surveyor and lands staff officer for the U.S. Forest Service. He wrote the Fabric of Surveying article on New Mexico in the July/August 2004 issue.

On Fred Roeder’s "Critique of the Public Land Survey System"
Part 3
J. Stanley Coalter, LS

I’ve been a fan of Fred Roeder for years and have read and enjoyed his Antepasados articles in the New Mexico association’s Benchmarks newsletter. When I first started reading his "critique," I wondered if perhaps someone else was using his name because it did not seem to be written in the scholarly, historical style he usually employed. What threw me off the track were comments like "stinks" and his comparison of the USPLS as "the greatest survey system ever created" to the "world’s greatest hamburger" and "bastardized into the thing it is today"! So, at first, I was "put off" by what appeared to be his anger and hostility at something for which I have a great deal of respect.

Then, what (to my wondering eyes) should appear, but comments such as "the System did admirably what it was designed to do" and other statements with which I completely agree! He is correct in that the System did what it was supposed to do (good job, Mr. Jefferson). He is correct in regard to section and quarter corners being correct by definition, but by requiring restoration of lost corners by the use of "a concept of midpoints and intersection of lines" (a formula that guarantees that lost corners will not be restored to their original location . . . thus, insuring that boundaries will move and litigation will result), the BLM presumes that the official plats are also correct by definition and that the surveyor’s original field notes are error free and that they did what they said they did. Imposing inflexible rules based on these kinds of presumptions are a typical result of shortsighted bureaucratic daydreaming (the kindest thing I can say). Anger must be contagious (I caught it from Fred).

In a popular article by Jerry Penry titled "Short Cut Method" that appeared in 2001 in another surveying publication, Roeder’s assertion was documented. That is, regardless of what the GLO township plat shows, many section lines were not run according to the instructions issued by the Surveyor General. In Penry’s diagram most of the quarter corners were set at 40 chains rather than running to the opposite section corner, correcting for a true line, and setting the quarter corner at the midpoint. This means that any error in course and/or distance using the "shortcut method" would put the true (by definition) quarter corner at a different location than a replacement set using BLM methods. In other words, the quarter corners in Penry’s example, and probably in most cases, would not be on a true line between section corners and would not be halfway between them. For example, in the area of northeastern Missouri where I worked between 1969 and 1978, the distance between many section corners vary by as much as three chains (or more). If the short cut method were used to subdivide the section originally, and the quarter corners set 40 chains from a section corner, a replacement using BLM methods would fall nearly 200 feet from the original.

Leonard L. Lampert wrote an article for ACSM’s Surveying and Mapping in 1980 in which he said "not all original surveys were executed with the precision intended in the contract documents and not all were held to the error tolerances written into them…" and "Today’s surveyor must, therefore, rely almost entirely upon the resurvey of the original government land survey. This creates a multitude of problems because not all resurveys were precise retracements of the original, nor did all the preceding surveyors leave a clear record of what they did and the evidence found."

The main point that Roeder makes is that conveying land using the BLM method was fine for the original purpose for which it was intended, (encourag ing settlement and generating funds for the federal government), but once property was transferred to private ownership the replacement of lost of obliterated corners should have b een achieved using the rules of construction that apply to every other survey, and not, (as Roeder says), by using a rigid mathematical formula that assumes that the GLO plats are error free and that the corners are where it says they are.

The solution that Roeder recommends is to require metes and bounds surveys. I agree. The GLO method of describing land does not meet the minimum standards for property surveys in any state that has adopted them. The GLO method does not recite course and distance between corners, and does not describe any monumentation. The courts in most (if not all) states require that for a survey to be sufficient and a conveyance to be valid, it must be locatable on the g round, and for corner monuments to be controlling, they must be called for in the conveyance, identifiable and undisturbed. The GLO method solves the problem of identifying monuments by not calling for any.

I disagree with Roeder’s contention that land records should be filed in the land office. Land records should be at local (county) level for the convenience of the public and to prevent more mismanagement by the very agency he has criticized for not doing its job. In 1971, the New Mexico State Planning Office published a "Land Title Study" which recommended the creation of a State Surveyor. A bill was introduced but failed to pass because the legislature did not want to create a new state agency. New Mexico has a lot of problems both with extension of the USPLS and title problems that can’t be solved by the B LM and should be sol
ved by New Mexico surveyors. There are ways to do it; Wisconsin has done it, and Missouri has done it with its State Surveyors Office (now a division of the Department of Natural Resources). They need someone like Bob Myers to show them how to do it and to demonstrate how well it works when done right. The subject came up again in the June 2003 issue of Benchmarks with an article by Glen Thurow and David King who wrote on "Revisiting Creation of the Office of State Land Surveyor".

Roeder’s anger threw me off track for awhile, but once I got past that, I found that most surveyors in public land states probably share his feelings in regard to the USPLS. One thing that will help as far as metes and bounds requirements are concerned is the New Mexico minimum standards for surveys. They are somewhat broad and need to be more specific regarding metes and bounds and eliminate the loopholes regarding "mortgage inspections" and other devices that permit bypassing a requirement for a professional boundary survey. We need more angry surveyors–or nothing will be done about this or any other problem.

Stan Coalter is a Licensed State Land Surveyor and Registered Professional Land Surveyor in the Texas. He began surveying in 1948, has been registered in Texas since 1964, and is currently registered in eight other states. Stan has been presenting continuing education programs since 1998 and operates his own surveying company in Round Rock, Texas. He is the author of the Fabric of Surveying article on Texas that appeared in the May/June 2004 issue.

A 1.283Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE