A Foundation for the Future

June 1, 2006
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Blackfeet Indian Reservation looking into mountains of Glacier National Park.


When Elouise Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet tribe in Montana, began her aggressive class-action lawsuit against the federal government in June 1996, she probably didn't realize what effects it would have on the country-and on the surveying profession. The case was established against the government on the grounds of mismanagement, ineptitude, dishonesty and delay by federal officials in accounting for billions of dollars belonging to approximately 500,000 American Indians and their heirs, and held in trust since the late 19th century. As a result of the now 10-year-long Cobell case, four solutions have been established by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) for the protection of Indian trust lands. Three of the solutions set forth are to develop a Geographic Information System for Indian lands; to place one Bureau of Land Management (BLM) cadastral surveyor in each regional BLM office; and to preserve the rectangular land system on Indian lands. Each of these solutions proposes to protect Indian lands and enhance the cadastral records of federal-interest lands.

The fourth solution, the creation of the Certified Federal Surveyor Program (CFedS), supports the same goals. The purpose of the CFedS program is to "train and certify licensed land surveyors to perform the commercial activities of boundary surveying and related services to basic federal surveying standards as established by the BLM," according to BLM notification of the program. Only surveyors certified by this program will be able to offer these additional services. Ron Scherler, the program's project manager, explains: "A listing of qualified, recommended surveyors will be available on a roster, made available to the BIA, tribes and other government agencies. The individual, certified surveyors on this roster will have the opportunity to provide services that surveyors who haven't completed the CFedS program will not be able to provide."

The voluntary program, approved by the Secretary of the Interior and the Special Trustee in the Office of the Special Trustee (OST) earlier this year, is open to all licensed surveyors registered in at least one state and in good standing, dictated by their state registration status. The program does not give permission for labor mobility; the state a surveyor is licensed in will be the state he or she will work in. The program will be consistent with laws for federal survey authority under the BLM.

To keep the program on track, a panel will be appointed by Don Buhler, BLM chief cadastral surveyor, with representatives from the BLM, BIA, the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians, tribes and the private sector.

The CFedS Program will train and certify licensed land surveyors to perform boundary surveying and other services on Indian trust lands.

About the Program

The CFedS program, to be completed at the surveyor's own pace, will consist of three components: a 120-hour initial training, certification examination and advanced continuing education. Surveyors of the program will learn certain protections of Indian lands and the record system specific to Indian lands.

Initial Training
The initial training, which is expected to take approximately four months to complete, will consist of seven courses delivered by various distance learning methods: (1) records investigation, history of the Public Land Survey System and administrative procedures; (2) federal boundary law and title examination; (3) survey evidence analysis; (4) restoration of lost corners; (5) introduction to water boundaries; (6) subdivision of sections; and (7) federal boundary standards and business practices. Training courses are currently being developed and will include instructors from advanced cadastral classes at the BLM. Question and answer exchanges will be done by E-mail at regularly scheduled times. Basic courses will include coverage of the Public Land Survey System, metes and bounds surveys, the effects of case law, interpretation of the Manual of Instruction for the Survey of the Public Lands of the United States, accepted field procedures and proper documentation.

Certification Examination
The four- to six-hour examination will include a multiple-choice test administered on a specific day by an approved proctor (a teacher, librarian or other acceptable overseer) who will return the test for scoring. Passing of the examination certifies the surveyor as a Certified Federal Surveyor. Those who do not pass certain portions of the test can retake those portions; if the surveyor doesn't pass the second time, he or she must petition the board requesting to take the test a third time. The board will survey the first test-takers about poorly worded questions, overly difficult questions, etc., in an attempt to improve the test.

After the examination, a roster will be compiled including the names of the new Certified Federal Surveyors, the states in which they practice, their contact information and their continuing education experience. The roster will be available to the BIA, tribes and others, who will contact local surveyors for contract jobs. Scherler believes this roster-and the program overall-is a great chance for surveyors to expand their opportunities. "I think we have great potential here to change-improve-how the federal and state agencies work with the private sector," he says. "We've already received phone calls from state agencies who have interest in Certified Federal Surveyors for contracts."

Continuing Education
To retain certification, surveyors of the program are required to complete one continuing education class of 12 to 15 hours per year. Two live class offerings will be made available per year in five or six states (to be determined); those in other states can complete classes through distance learning methods. Ideas proposed for continuing education include retracement camps, water boundaries (a very important aspect of Indian lands) and training on GIS base (cadastral) layers. Field training may be associated with some continuing education modules.

A two-year or four-year renewal of the certification has yet to be determined, but the continuing education requirement will remain on an annual basis.

Certified Federal Surveyors' names will be made available on a roster to the BIA, tribes and government agencies for contract work.

Costs and Funding

The Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians provided approximately $400,000 to fund the initial CFedS program development this year and into next year. By 2008, the program is expected to be self-sufficient. The BLM National Training Center has developed a trust fund in which monies will be banked solely for the program instead of placing it in a federal treasury. Money for the program will be applied to administration fees and continuing education courses, and CFedS manual creation and production, among other things. Scherler says that users of the BLM proprietary CMM software used for cadastral survey computations could benefit from better documentation. It is proposed that money coming in for the CFedS program could go to updating this software and its documentation; training on the software could then become a continuing education module option.

How to Get Involved

A pilot program of ±100 surveyors will begin Oct. 2, 2006; registration will begin Sept. 1, 2006. Interested surveyors will be able to apply for the program later this summer; details will be available on BLM's CFedS website, www.blm.gov/cadastal/cfeds/cfeds.htm, by the beginning of this month. The program's panel is seeking a well-represented cross-section of professionals for the pilot group, and will select individuals accordingly. Program administrators will be seeking valuable feedback from this group to perfect the program before it is opened to all surveyors by March 1, 2007.

Long-term Goals

"We don't want to make this hard on people," Scherler says. "We want to make it a success." The BLM and BIA hope that in four to five years every boundary survey executed on Indian land will be under federal authority, contrary to the current process where most surveys are executed under state authority. BLM and BIA plan to utilize CFedS to execute most of these federal authority surveys, and surveyors will be comfortable in the fact that, when executed under federal authority, a surveyor will not be liable once a plat is accepted and filed by BLM. The program will certainly allow for better surveys completed by registered, licensed surveyors, and will encourage survey technicians to attain licensure as well. "If we do a good job of handling this, provide a good exam and continuing education modules, this will grow," Scherler says optimistically, adding that he hopes to see 2,000 to 3,000 participants in the program within two to three years.

The BLM Certified Federal Surveyor Program has set out to bring standards to managing trust assets. With the program's aggressive yet feasible plan in place, Indians such as Elouise Cobell can be hopeful that lands held in trust for hundreds of years will be rightfully managed.

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