By Michael S. Lapp Meridian Land Surveying, Inc.
In an effort to honor professional surveyors and their contributions to society, March 16 – 22 has been declared National Surveyors Week.
Land surveying is one of the oldest professions in the world, tracing its roots back to ancient Egypt. Pharaohs’ surveyors would layout fields in the Nile River valley every year after the annual floods made the land unrecognizable to its tenants. This was done to minimize conflict between those who worked the land, and to ensure that they were properly taxed.
Land surveyors have had an influential role in U.S. history, greater in fact, than in most other countries. Because the nation was land-rich and money-poor during its formative years, it was the land surveyor who converted millions of acres of raw land into real estate that would be settled.
This influence is carved in stone in South Dakota, where four faces stare down from Mount Rushmore. The layperson recognizes them as four of our more significant presidents, but to a land surveyor, this monument is known as “three surveyors and that other guy.”
Thomas Jefferson, one of those faces and our third president, was instrumental in the creation of the Public Land Survey System, which was used as a method to survey and dispose of millions of acres of raw land, including those in Montana. Jefferson was raised in the colonial states where lands were described by the metes and bounds system, which considered each parcel individually.
Well aware of the conflicts that arose due to poor records and/or poor surveys, Jefferson concluded it was better to survey the West – everything west of the Ohio/Pennsylvania border – prior to patent to avoid chaos and conflict, which would delay the settlement of new territories.
By first surveying a grid and assigning each available tract a unique legal description, thousands of acres could be disposed of in short order, allowing settlement and development to occur rapidly. Surveyors with the Government Land Office were tasked with the monumental job of surveying this grid.
In Big Sky, the GLO plat that includes Lone Mountain was approved on Dec. 20, 1917, and covers 23,4473.15 acres of rugged mountainous terrain surveyed a century ago. These surveyors walked over the same terrain that we ski today, carrying all of their surveying gear with them, and camping out at night.
These early surveyors measured the elevation for Lone Mountain, as it was named on the original survey, at 11,194 feet – significantly higher than the 11,166 noted on today’s maps. This is not due to shrinkage – we simply are better at measuring today.
Land Surveying remains critical today. Per Montana law, a Professional Land Surveyor must prepare a survey or plat to divide lands or to realign existing boundaries. We also provide topographical surveys depicting the slope and grade of the land, existing improvements, utilities and easements of record on a base map utilized by architects and builders for the design of new homes and other structures.
In addition, some areas require that a Professional Land Surveyor layout proposed homes on individual lots prior to their construction, to ensure that the building is constructed on the appropriate lot and within the building envelope.
In short, think of the Land Surveyor as the connection between ideas expressed on paper (and on the computer screen), and reality on the ground – we can create a tract of record, provide a legal description, stake out its location on the ground, generate a topographical survey for other professionals to utilize in design of improvements, and then stake out those improvements for construction.
If you haven’t guessed already, Jefferson is one of the Land Surveyors carved in stone on Mount Rushmore. The other two are our first and 16th Presidents. Roosevelt was the “other guy.”
Michael S. Lapp is a Professional Land Surveyor and the owner of Meridian Land Surveying, Inc.