Professional Topography-Surveyors as Trailblazers

In the history of the United States, there are many people who may be described as both surveyors and trailblazers.

Lewis, Clark and Sacajawea are often considered trailblazers of our country’s character. Photograph by Jim Peaco, courtesy of Yellowstone National Park.

They opened up new territories (or made it possible for them to be opened), identified new key political boundaries and settled disputes by redetermining the position of previously agreed-upon boundaries. Perhaps we forget today that, as surveyors, we can still function as trailblazers.

What do I mean by this? Well, I have already listed a few of the trailblazing impacts provided by surveyors regardless of whether they were Lewis and Clark or deputy GLO surveyors. In essence, they helped form this country’s character. Since not all of our readers come from the sectionalized areas of the country, I should also mention that surveying trailblazers performed many of the exploratory activities as well as functions of enumerating, inventorying and mapping as they completed the initial or original surveys that defined the first boundaries in the colonies before and after the formation of the United States.

Trailblazers are also sometimes referred to as pathfinders. These words indicate that these individuals are leaders who make it possible for others to follow in their footsteps. But these followers don’t follow merely to reach the trailblazer’s destination. They are free to do whatever they please as they tread on that trail. In the vernacular of the history of our country’s founding, that included land speculation, community forming, settling anywhere along the trail, providing services to settlers, and forming businesses to further develop communities, commerce and the general well-being of the country. Followers of an original trail can also strike out on their own, and then begin trailblazing in their own right.

Thus, our ancestral surveyors who functioned as trailblazers enabled the growth and development of this country. Similarly, surveyors today enable the growth and development of this country. In many cases, this occurs simply from executing an order for a survey, be it boundary, construction, topographic mapping, as-built, etc. And some surveys are still couched in terms similar to the work of the early trailblazers, such as geologic surveys, mineral surveys and geophysical exploration surveys.

But it is the rare surveyor who, in addition to measuring and marking the requisite points, lines and areas, also surveys. By my definition, surveying refers to the surveyor’s process of evaluating everything he or she encounters. This results in a report for the client that includes not only a plat, field notes and other measurement-related reports, but also information about mineral and other natural resources (such as timber) on the land, availability of water for settlement, agriculture and industry, quality of the soil, fitness of the land for agriculture and other uses, and fitness for settlement and other development.

Granted, surveyors today (sometimes) research and mark easements for utilities and other purposes; they (sometimes) work with third parties such as utility providers, transportation authorities, other fee holders and the adjoiners to complete the work required by the client. But rarely does the surveyor today proclaim or commit to performing that broader type of surveying. In many instances, even when the land boundaries are measured, we “forget” to report on the condition of those boundaries, concentrating instead on the mere measurements.

In today’s world, where surveyors at many professional meetings are heard to complain about how their sphere of influence (or operations) is steadily being eroded, I wonder whether some of this perceived erosion is due to the fact that surveyors have lost their trailblazer inheritance.

Do we do a good enough job of understanding our clients’ needs and take the lead in providing the information that they might not even know they need? This would mean providing “surveying” in the greater sense of the word. Many of us, with the background and training we’ve had, may not feel confident that we can do so. But just because the common definition of survey today has been reduced to much less than the 18th-century concept, does not mean that a 21st-century surveyor cannot reinvent the term. Instead of dwelling on personal limitations, why not think about the concept of leading a team that can provide the 18th-century concept of surveying? The team may be constructed from the surveyor’s alliances and relationships so that the client can be confident that his or her interests are being properly addressed in the performance of a survey. To lead such a team, the surveyor, while not necessarily being expert, would be required to have a working knowledge of the subject areas of the other experts who contribute to the survey. The surveyor would also have to use innovations and ideas found in business today to utilize his team’s resources.

We constantly hear today about reinventing, reengineering and redeveloping oneself or one’s business. How about redeveloping and reinventing the concept of surveying?

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Recent Articles by Joseph Paiva, PhD, PS, PE

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