Point of Beginning

Web Exclusive: The New Manual

January 1, 2010
The 2009 edition of the BLM’s Manual of Surveying Instructions addresses technology changes and provides key policy clarifications...

A section corner overlooking the Anaktuvuk River in the Brooks Range, on the boundary between the Village of Anaktuvuk Pass and Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, Township 15 South, Ranges 2 and 3 East, Umiat Principal Meridian, Alaska, by Daryl K. Moistner, Bureau of Land Management contract surveyor and photographer.


For the past 154 years, the Manual of Surveying Instructions has guided the original surveys and resurveys of the lands within the Public Land Survey System (PLSS), first through the General Land Office and, since 1946, through the Bureau of Land Management, Department of the Interior. In late December 2009, the BLM began distributing the 2009 edition of the Manual, which is the ninth version since its inception.

The Manual describes how cadastral surveys-the official surveys of the United States-are made in conformance with statutory law and its judicial interpretation. While not written specifically for nonfederal surveyors, the principles contained in the Manual on the subject of retracement are an integral part of private surveying in the 30 public land states. Further, many states have formally adopted the Manual in statute as guidance for private licensed surveyors. Thus, the book is a fundamental piece of the complex subject of boundary surveys in the United States.

The primary focus of the Manual is-and always has been-the integrity of the PLSS and the federal system of survey and land records. Cadastral surveyors today identify and establish monuments that document the boundary lines between public and private lands for both the surface and mineral estate. While equipment, techniques and even the agency’s name have changed in the last 200 years, the agency’s responsibilities and legal requirements have not. Security of legal title to land-one of the bulwarks of American citizens’ civil liberties-is the fundamental object of the cadastral surveyor’s work and of the Manual. Former editions of the Manual as well as related Manual supplements and special instructions remain relevant because they provide the instructions in force at the time a given survey was conducted and land was conveyed.

However, when the Manual was last issued in 1973, editors could not have foreseen the technology that is now commonly used in the surveying community. The 2009 Manual addresses these and other changes while also providing policy clarifications and additional information.

Significant Changes

The significant changes in the 2009 Manual pertain to four main areas: determining water boundaries, defining the standard of evidence, using coordinates as cadastral evidence, and conducting mineral survey resurveys.

Water boundaries. The federal courts and the Interior Board of Land Appeals (IBLA), which is one of the primary forums of independent and objective administrative review of BLM decisions, continue to articulate further nuances regarding water boundaries such as navigability determinations, submerged lands issues and ownership of unsurveyed islands in meandered non-navigable streams. These decisions are addressed in the 2009 Manual in a manner of general instructions to guide the surveyor.

Standard of evidence. The federal courts, followed by IBLA, have changed the standard of evidence to determine whether a corner is existent, obliterated or lost. The “beyond reasonable doubt” evidence standard used in the 1973 edition of the Manual is now a “substantial evidence” standard. Definitions of existent, obliterated and lost corners using the substantial evidence standard in the context of the PLSS and other federal surveys are included in the 2009 Manual.

Coordinates as collateral evidence. General instructions are given in cases where repeatable coordinates may be collateral evidence of a corner position and when they may be the best available evidence for the position of an obliterated corner. New technology enabling quick generation of precise and repeatable coordinates has led to many corner positions being “witnessed” by coordinates. Coordinates by themselves have little meaning. However, using the “following in the footsteps” concept, if the previous surveyor documents how he or she obtained the coordinates so the subsequent surveyor can, with an acceptable degree of confidence, determine the same point on the Earth's surface (following in the computational footsteps) with an acceptable level of certainty, then coordinates may be the best available evidence of the corner position.

Mineral survey resurveys. Instructions have been expanded for mineral survey resurveys and mineral segregation surveys. The 2009 edition has incorporated much that is in the BLM’s Mineral Survey Procedures Guide and also includes general instructions on resurvey procedures for mineral lands surveys.

An Area of Policy Clarification

The 2009 Manual clarifies that a corner established during an obvious careful retracement of the intersected, senior or existing line-no matter what it has been called in the official record (closing corners, corners of maximum control, corners of minimum control, intersection points, junior corners, senior corners, and standard corners)-can be accepted in place and may be an angle point in the intersected, senior or existing line. By expired policy from the General Land Office, closing corners were established approximately on an intersected line by measurement to one corner on the intersected line. By current policy, when a corner monument established by the expired closing-corner policy method is recovered, the intersected line is to be retraced between the two adjacent corners of the intersected line. If it is determined that the closing corner monument is off the intersected line, it is to be amended, and the true point of intersection is to be monumented and marked as the closing corner.

Also by current policy, corners are established on an intersected line by measurement to the nearest corner in each direction. If it is determined that a recovered corner monument on an intersected line was established by the current policy in an obvious careful retracement, it will be accepted as controlling the intersected line. The method by which a corner is established-not what the corner is called-will determine the proper treatment when conducting a resurvey.

Important Additions

Fourteen state-specific federal statutes guide federal authority survey work performed in Alaska. As a result, the surveying process there is different in many cases than the general public land survey laws. The 2009 edition includes identification and discussion of the federal survey statutes that pertain only to Alaska.

The 2009 edition of the Manual also includes a discussion of the law and policies of surveying and boundaries as they have developed since 1973. 

A Change in Principle

In the 2009 edition, one major change in principle is that the Manual is largely technology-independent. How the surveyor determines the relationship between two points-i.e., the measurement procedures and instrumentation used-will be determined for each survey from the best available technology to meet the purpose of that survey. How to measure is best handled through the special instructions established by the officer in administrative charge of the work. 


What do you think? Does the 2009 Manual adequately address the challenges faced by today’s surveying professionals? Please share your comments below.


Sidebar: Fast Facts

  • Cadastral is derived from the word cadastre, meaning a public record, survey or map of the value, extent and ownership of land as a basis of taxation.
  • The Department of the Interior manages about 500 million acres, or one-fifth of the land in the United States.
  • The director of the Bureau of Land Management, the federal agency responsible for managing 253 million acres of public land and 700 million acres of subsurface mineral estate in all 50 states, is tasked with fulfilling the congressional mandate to the secretary of the interior to periodically update the Manual of Surveying Instructions.
  • Federal government conveyance documents, e.g., land patents, are the origin of chains of title in the Public Land Survey System (PLSS) states. The PLSS is the framework for all land title (public and private) in all states except Texas, Hawaii and those formed from the original 13 Colonies.
  • The key goal of the Bureau of Land Management’s Division of Lands, Realty & Cadastral Survey is to enhance the quality of land surveys in accordance with the PLSS. That goal is furthered through the release of the 2009 edition of the Manual of Surveying Instructions.
  • The Manual is the standard to which 238 federal authority surveyors, 314 certified federal surveyors and about 50,000 private surveyors adhere in conducting surveys.


Sidebar: The Revision Process

The 2009 edition of the Manual was prepared under the supervision of the BLM director and supersedes all previous instructions or directives on the covered technical topics. The Manual was created subject to the direction and control of the assistant secretary for land and minerals management, Department of the Interior, under the authority of Title 43 U.S.C. §§ 2 and 1201 and subject to the authority of the secretary of the interior.

In the development of the 2009 Manual, every effort was made to preserve the long-standing principles of cadastral survey while accommodating updated technology and making clarifications as deemed necessary. Sounding boards comprising 81 subject-matter experts from the public and private sectors of the surveying, mining and legal professions were called upon to review the drafts. Two BLM internal technical reviews resulted in more than 1,700 edits and comments, and the draft was also subject to comments by the Department of the Interior Office of the Solicitor and Interior Board of Land Appeals.

Presentations were also given about the development of the next edition and its relationship to state laws and the practice of private land surveying. Audiences included private surveyors in Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Montana, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon, Utah, Washington, Wyoming, and others. Additionally, the BLM developed the “Next Edition Website” to enable interested parties to track the progress of the Manual development.