Point of Beginning

Don't Throw Away That Old Manual

April 20, 2000
In my travels to the various states that are under the Public Lands Survey System (PLSS), I constantly hear an argument that causes me great concern. There is criticism of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for not producing a new Manual. I recently heard a surveyor belittling the BLM for being so "behind the times" with its Manual of Instructions. He cited the "fact" that the most significant changes in the history of our profession have all occurred since its last book, the 1973 Manual.

In a similar vein I have often heard of the inapplicability of the 1973 Manual to certain states. This is often geared to the fact that the BLM's original Government Land Office (GLO) surveys were all completed prior to any Manual being written. Interestingly, most who make these sorts of claims are quite unfamiliar with the contents and intent of the Manuals.

These two arguments actually have their answer in the same general misunderstanding. The PLSS surveys, whether under the GLO or BLM, were never done without guidelines. The contracts issued to the deputy surveyors included specific instructions and terms that fell within the purview of the 1785 Land Ordinance Act and its subsequent revisions. In other words, the original surveys were done in a manner contemplated by the law. One of the major concerns of the early GLO officers was inconsistency regarding how surveys were done from one state or territory to another. It was this concern that prompted the GLO to issue the "Oregon Instructions" in 1851. A whole new territory was being settled very quickly, and the government wanted a consistent set of rules and interpretation of the law. Additional information was added to those instructions in 1855, and the first real Manual was then produced.

Chronologically speaking, many states were completely surveyed and sold off before this first Manual was published. But therein lies the problem. The Manual is not a document that is tied to time. In fact, it is an absolute testament to how consistent and "orderly" the PLSS was intended to be. A careful examination of the content of the current 1973 Manual reveals that only a small part of it is tied to time-sensitive issues like technology. But before reviewing the contents of that book, let's understand what the intent of this book really is.

The current Manual has two distinct purposes. First, it provides the federal surveyor with guidance on how to conduct original surveys. While this section offers some very valuable and important lessons for the private surveying community, a good portion of it is not directly applicable to us. None of us in the private sector are performing original PLSS surveys. The BLM is still doing original surveys; primarily in Alaska, and to a much smaller extent, in some of the western states.

The second purpose of the Manual is to provide guidance on the conduct of resurveys. While the book itself is written by federal surveyors to federal surveyors, the applicability of this to the private sector is absolute. Thomas Jefferson and his cohorts who invented the PLSS did not directly address resurveys. It became an issue very quickly as retracements of already approved work revealed "errors." Errors meant that the record measurements were found to be incorrect, sometimes significantly. Congress addressed this issue early on in a new federal statute, saying the "original surveys are correct." Hence, the absolute control of the evidence of the original survey was never to be questioned. This is the foundation of all principles in resurvey work.

However, the vast majority of guidance and principles for the subject of resurveys was established by the courts. As various issues came up in the resurvey and retracement of the PLSS, disputes arose and were settled in the court system. It is this body of case law that serves as the tool for the second purpose of the Manual. The Manual is a law book that gives guidance, even absolute direction, on how to do most of what we do in the PLSS. It is for this reason that the paradigm, "The Manual does not apply here," is so frightening. We must realize that virtually every parcel of private land in the public lands states started with a government patent. These parcels, and their subsequent "bona fide rights" are directly tied to federal law and the concepts in the Manuals. For us private surveyors, bona fide rights only pertain to location. But that is exactly what the PLSS is all about: establish the location (and rights attached thereto) before the land ever becomes private. The point is this: All PLSS parcels were created and passed on to non-federal ownership under federal law. The higher courts have seen it this way as well.

So what exactly is in the 1973 Manual?

The first chapter briefly discusses the laws that apply to the survey of the PLSS, as well as some administrative items. The second chapter covers measurement, and because of its age, still speaks of the solar transit and other "antiquated" measurement techniques. It speaks of closure limits that seem incredibly low to our modern techno-survey age. Let's face it, the distance meter was just coming on to the scene as this Manual was written. And who would ever have thought we would be doing surveys from satellites thousands of miles out in space?

This second chapter is where most of the critics of the Manual get their arguments. And let's just all agree; it does need major updating. But let's also understand that this chapter is one of the least applicable to any of us, including the modern BLM surveyor! What follows these first two chapters however, is the heart of what every surveyor working within the PLSS should know.

Chapter 3 discusses in detail the entire legal infrastructure of the PLSS. While a few terms have changed, and a couple of very minor "methods" have been altered, this chapter is completely applicable to the earliest of GLO surveys. It not only explains the bigger picture of how things worked, but also talks about the subdivision of a section-directly applicable to that landowner for whom you just did a survey. Chapter 4 talks about the BLM's monumentation standards and policies. This provides powerful guidance on how all of us ought to be monumenting, witnessing, recording and perpetuating what we do in a modern survey.

Chapter 5 discusses the restoration of lost and obliterated corners, a subject pertinent to the modern surveyor. To claim that the 1973 Manual does not apply to some of the PLSS states is to completely miss the point. Chapter 5 interprets very early statutory law into a set of methods and principles to preserve bona fide rights.

Chapter 6 is about resurveys. It is directly applicable to every surveyor. It is based on a long-term collection of case law (much of which is cited in the chapter) about protecting bona fide rights. One of the main reasons GLO/BLM updated the Manual over the years was to reflect many U.S. Supreme Court cases that settled-once and for all-certain resurvey issues. To be willingly ignorant of these, or to knowingly ignore them, is tantamount to an abandonment of the very fabric of why land surveying exists as a regulated profession.

Chapter 7 is about "special surveys," and includes law and direction on the survey of riparian boundaries and non-rectangular entities. Chapters 8 and 9 cover internal policies on how to write field notes and how to draw a plat. But don't let these seemingly mundane subjects fool you; there is much to be learned from these chapters as well. To understand the process (and math) behind how a plat displays parcels of land is required knowledge to properly subdivide many sections.

Chapter 10 briefly covers the original survey of mineral claims. This is not applicable to the majority of PLSS states. Even where it does apply, this chapter is written for the U.S. mineral surveyor, not the private surveyor. That does not mean there aren't a few things to be learned here as well.

Finally, in the back of the book, the BLM provide examples of field notes and a sample township plat. You could spend a week exploring what those parts of the book have to say to all of us working in the PLSS today.

Admittedly, it is very important that you be familiar with the Manual or instructions that applied to your area during the original surveys. I suggest your office own a copy or reprint of everything that might apply. But the current Manual is the best source of explanation as to how the courts and laws have been interpreted to deal with the very heart of what we all do for a living.

So what is the future of the BLM Manual? Will the government write a new one? Actually, a new draft was produced several years ago. Recently the BLM began another project to update the Manual. Does this mean everything will change? Not at all. The laws are well settled. The court cases have set precedent. The principle of protecting bona fide rights will never change. I am not authorized to speak on behalf of the BLM (much to their relief). But I am willing to predict that the only real changes will be technological and those in reference to issues that have been resolved or ruled upon by the courts since the previous Manual's publication. I also hope some effort will be made to make the Manual more readable and understandable to the non-federal surveyor. But the heart and core of surveying in the PLSS will not change; it never has. So don't throw out that "old" Manual. As with its predecessors, it will never be outdated.