Progress on the Manual: The next BLM manual edition and your state laws.

July 23, 2008
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You’ve heard it was coming for years. But after a couple of false starts, the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) plans to have the next edition of the Manual of Surveying Instructions published in 2009.

The hardcover book will be the latest in a series of manuals issued by the commissioner of the general land office and the BLM dating back to 1851.[1]

The need for a new edition of this historic book is threefold. First, the current 1973 manual did not anticipate the advent of modern technology now commonly used in the surveying community. Second, many policy and procedural changes have been handled internally with BLM memorandums but need to be incorporated into the manual itself. Finally, more recent case law has settled some issues and new federal statutes have been enacted that need to be addressed formally in the manual.

The reality of land in the public-domain states is this: Almost all the land title began with a patent from the General Land Office (GLO) based on a survey plat, notes and evidence on the ground. The Public Land Survey System (PLSS) is the foundation of most title in the United States. Whether your state legislature understands this or not is irrelevant. The location of this title is, in many cases, a function of federal law, and the introduction of quick-fix legislation based on partial understanding has plagued many surveyors trying to conduct retracements of PLSS parcels.

It is unfortunate that some surveyors believe they can retrace PLSS parcels differently than the federal law intended, thus adjusting a landowner’s location of title almost by whim. Numerous state laws have attempted to fix some perceived problems, but they have only resulted in further complications in the land patterns and locations.

Several states, mostly in the West, have formally adopted the 1973 manual by statute. While there is wisdom in this to remind surveyors that the federal principles are what title is based upon, there is a problem with this practice. Citing the 1973 manual essentially limits the surveyor from using the next edition. It is strongly recommended that these statutes be revised. Likewise, legislating a change to your state statute to “2009” will simply present a similar problem when a future edition comes out. And what if BLM issued an addendum or other document due to some major court case in the future? Would it be included in your statutory reach?

Considering these possibilities, I would like to make a suggestion. Since you are going to approach your state legislature on a change anyway, might I offer this wording: “the applicable Manual of Surveying Instructions and its supplements.” This highlights a deeper understanding of the manuals to the modern surveyor as well as the applicability of all of them, including earlier instructions upon which the manual is based.

If you have looked closely at the history of the manuals, you know that there have been many changes over the years that impacted the original surveys, which you are now going to retrace. How, why and where things were done, recorded and platted is critical to the proper retracement of the location of all this title we have been discussing. A more correct reference by your legislature to “the applicable Manual of Surveying Instructions and its supplements” would clear up this perceived limitation placed on the modern retracement surveyor. And it solves the future editions issue, as well.

Some surveyors need to be trained in understanding the applicability of any manual to their PLSS retracement work. They have assumed they can do anything they want or they have placed a very simplistic template on their application of PLSS principles. A good reference library for any PLSS surveyor would include copies of all the manuals applicable to their work area. These manuals (or scanned versions of them) are available. And in C. Albert White’s book “A History of the Rectangular Survey System,” one will find all pertinent parts of the manuals and supplements reprinted through 1910.

Interestingly, a small portion of the 1947 edition of the manual is being re-introduced in the 2009 edition. Further, the 2009 edition will go into much greater detail on some pertinent riparian issues than any previous edition. This will cover many accretion, reliction and avulsion issues based on hundreds of years of case law not previously discussed in any edition of the manual.

Thus, we see the need for a complete library of manuals. And we also see the need for our state laws to reference all of them as applicable in statute. As you deal with your legislature’s necessary changes for the next edition, I encourage you to discuss and debate the pros and cons of making the manual reference more generic--and thereby more correct.


1. The 1851 edition was the first manual issued by the commissioner of the general land office. Earlier manuals were issued by individual surveyors general.

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