Thought Leader: Death of the PLSS

A 320Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

Alaska’s PLSS survey is still in its infancy. Freshly placed monuments are still steaming and some 35 million acres of State Lands are yet unsurveyed. That’s about the size of the entire state of New York. I caught wind that the BLM is proposing to transfer the balance of State Land to Alaska through the Direct Point Positioning Survey method or "DPPS". What is DPPS? Well, best I can tell it’s a big old perimeter survey leaving the least possible evidence on that perimeter coupled with the hope that every internal landowner will posthumously get an individual survey… aaaaand that occupation/owner recognized monuments will somehow just magically conform to the Federal schematic. We call this a paper subdivision in the lower 48 and two centuries of American retracement has demonstrated that it doesn’t work out so well.

We saw in Wood v. Mandrilla (The American Surveyor, October 2016 issue) that the Court was disinterested in the GLO’s lotting schematics and in fact recognized that the PLSS subdivisions sometimes only govern the perimeter boundaries of a patented tract. We also saw in Erickson v. Turnquist (The American Surveyor, February 2017) that the best evidence of a subdivision is that subdivision itself. Conflict arose when two surveyors relied on two different surveys to establish the same line: one from within the original subdivision and the other from an adjacent survey plat. We saw in Atwell v Olson (The American Surveyor, Jan 2017 issue) that owners did their own subdividing and staking using an interpretation of "half" that would make the first Seven Ranges look more like four…or nine. The point is that as soon as two people take possession the schematic is nearly garbage without iron in the ground.

You should be sensing and might just be sharing my discomfort with the notion of Federal paperheads pushin’ coordinate crack on the streets of Juneau. However, I am all for saving the taxpayers money through efficient government and that hook has been baited by the proponents of DPPS. I have neither worked in Alaska nor am I licensed there. However, I do live and practice in Arizona which is dominated by Federal Land. The DPPS system of disposition concerns me!

Let’s brainstorm the cost savings angle. The obvious benefit is cost savings to the taxpayers of the United States. That’s a good thing, a really good thing after the last eight years of economic turmoil. So how does the BLM actually save money? Well, the cost of monuments must be a healthy part of the cost of a survey. I figure the DPPS could reduce the number of required monuments by 50 to 90%. Okay, that’s awesome for the taxpayer with the minor consequence of losing a huge chunk of change that stimulates the economic production of survey monuments. Not a bid deal in the overall scheme unless you manufacture or buy monuments.

Another opportunity to save the taxpayer money is to cut employees. Yes folks, downsizing. As a hungry taxpayer I might expect the BLM to cut their staff to a single program administrator per state and an office hand or two. It’s obvious that a labor force is not required if there is no labor to perform. No need to have Federal Surveyors loitering around an unnecessary office unproductively killing time until retirement. This could ultimately lead to major cost savings in reduced building footprints, unnecessary workstations, software licenses, and even motor vehicles and road fuel consumption. Fantastic for the taxpayer, but not so hot for BLM staff, software developers, vehicle manufacturers/dealers, and fuel resellers.

Honestly folks I have trouble seeing any real cost benefit to the taxpayer. Human resources, wages, and benefits are a huge chunk of any budget. I see nothing suggesting any staff cuts or force reduction as cost saving measures, nor am I suggesting that. Dismantling a functional and productive component of government is a nearly felonious act toward the public it serves. Especially the one that lays the foundation of our private property rights. So if we’re talking mostly about saving labor time for the Feds I say "Fooey"! There is no real "cost savings" in labor time with a public agency. The tax dollars are budgeted based on employment slots not productivity. The motivation is neither speed nor profit but rather to provide a public service that might otherwise not be economically viable through private sector resources. Economic viability might include things like the costs of complying with other government regulation, specialized equipment needs, and perhaps the sheer magnitude of the task itself. There are few better uses of public money than establishing the framework of our society. Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona put together the 2015 Federal Government Wastebook ( PDF/2015Wastebook.pdf). Can anyone please tell me how the BLM needs to shave one single penny from their legitimate budget after browsing the Wastebook? "Fooey"! The savings incurred from merely reducing the number of monuments is a drop in the bucket compared to the "Help A Hipster" movement that has received nearly $5 million of taxpayer funds from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) over the past five years according to page 11 (page 15 of the PDF) of Senator Flake’s Wastebook. By the way, before I ever see a tax refund I’m sure the BLM’s savings will be absorbed and applied to an emotional impact study of Facebook activities on Groundhog Day!

Let’s take a look at contracting. I’ll be the first to admit that I do not know if the B.L.M. contracts any of this work to the private sector but it is a worthy discussion point. Contracting the work out could be a positive economic stimulator to Alaska’s private sector surveyors. That sounds like a positive thing but I can’t see actual cost savings unless the pink slips are handed out at BLM. Otherwise we’d be paying federal employees to watch private surveyors beat feet. However, if we measure success in time and completion then perhaps a hybrid of contracting and BLM muscle could wrap this thing up in a timely manner??? I think back to the Wastebook and feel like BLM Alaska shouldn’t be cutting budgets but instead demanding as much money as it takes to complete the federal commitment of monumentation. Again I’m finding the justification of "cost savings" as a hard pill to swallow and the notion of half-cheeking on the monuments as shear poppycock! Down in the lower 48 I’ve seen and heard tell of some contract surveys being poorly performed. The Courts have continually demonstrated that "poorly performed" is not synonymous with "untraceable" or "lost" and that original monuments control regardless of measure. Knowing this from a lifetime of experience I would find more comfort in retracing a loosely monumented survey than I would being forced into sorting out a boundary of occupation that has been legally defined by protraction. As we have seen in "Decided Guidance" that’s the recipe for a boundary dispute. Regardless of the old bum surveys performed by drunken plainsman and the local gentry, I contend that our contemporary licensing system produces highly competent surveyors that can fulfill contract surveys to the highest standards of care. Has the discussion of contracting entered the equation? I don’t know but do see it as a worthy exploration.

So from my perch and the limited information I have this looks like the Federal Government is walking away from an obligation they originally assumed in 1796. It also appears like the Federal honchos are chanting "cost savings" to the people from a rose colored Bilby tower. This also smells like the nerds and geeks have stepped out of there safe space to play virtual land surveyor. Don’t get me wrong, I like and trust GPS. It has been precisely mapping, locating, and blowing up our enemies since Desert Storm. CAD, GIS, and Database management tools are also powerful and wonderful additions to our profession but the fact of the matter is Land Boundary Surveying is a legal exercise supported by math and science and in fact happens on the ground! The Federal Government’s new role is land management rather than disposition. They can measure and play cadastral Tetris however they wish until disposition. After that, the patent locks the individual domain to the ground and is bound by common law and State Statute. In 1796 our founding fathers wisely forecasted in that it is in the best interest of the Public to mark the lines of a patent on the ground. Without those original marks the longevity of the envisioned PLSS scheme is doomed simply by human nature. Wood v. Mandrilla is a great example of how the PLSS is not exempt from Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection. The DPPS is an accelerant to that fate.

A 2Mb PDF of a BLM DPPS PowerPoint can be found at

Jason Foose is the County Surveyor of Mohave County Arizona. He originally hails from the Connecticut Western Reserve Township 3, range XIV West of Ellicott’s Line Surveyed in 1785 but now resides in Township 21 North, Range 17 West of the Gila & Salt River Base Line and Meridian.

A 320Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE