Uncle Sam has a little secret. While the federal government owns more than one-third of the landmass of the United States, it lacks a current accurate inventory of its real estate portfolio. It has no idea exactly how much land it owns, where it is located, what its value is, or what its current or maximum potential use is. (Much of this land also lacks a current accurate survey, but that’s a discussion for another time.)

When Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit in the summer of 2005, Congress had an unprecedented need for geographic information at the parcel level. Within days of each other, two different bills passed the U.S. House of Representatives--one to identify federal land available for temporary housing and another to find locations for new oil refineries.

Accessing information for these national needs should not require an Act of Congress. A few keystrokes on a computer should be all that is necessary to access current accurate maps, as well as a relational database, to answer these queries. However, quickly answering such questions is not possible due to the antiquated and inefficient cadastre or land information systems maintained in the United States.

In 1980, the National Research Council (NRC) issued a report titled “Need for a Multipurpose Cadastre,” which stated “There is a critical need for a better land-information system in the United States to improve land-conveyance procedures, furnish a basis for equitable taxation, and provide much-needed information for resource management and environmental planning.”

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that more than 30 federal agencies control hundreds of thousands of real property assets worldwide, including facilities and land worth hundreds of billions of dollars (GAO-03-122).1 However, the portfolio is not well managed, many assets are no longer consistent with agency mission or needs and are therefore no longer needed, and many assets are in an alarming state of disrepair. In 1995, GAO told Congress, “The General Services Administration publishes statistics on the amount of land managed by each federal agency. However, we found this information was not current or reliable” (GAO-T-RCED-95-117).

The federal government’s poor management of its real property assets is one of the high-risk activities of the government, as identified by GAO. In a January 2005 report, GAO said many of the federal government’s assets “are no longer effectively aligned with, or responsive to, agencies’ changing missions. Further, many assets are in an alarming state of deterioration.” GAO also stated, “compounding these problems [is] the lack of reliable governmentwide data for strategic asset management” (High Risk Series – An Update, GAO-05-207).

As a result of this risk, President Bush issued Executive Order 13327 on Feb. 4, 2004, calling on federal agencies to “identify and categorize all real property owned, leased, or otherwise managed by the agency.” This executive order specifies that “The Administrator of General Services, in consultation with the Federal Real Property Council, shall establish and maintain a single, comprehensive, and descriptive database of all real property under the custody and control of all executive branch agencies, except when otherwise required for reasons of national security. The Administrator shall collect from each executive branch agency such descriptive information, except for classified information, as the Administrator considers will best describe the nature, use, and extent of the real property holdings of the Federal Government.”2

The executive order has two major shortcomings: it exempts the nation’s public lands and it fails to include a geospatial component to the real property database.

To remedy these deficiencies, Rep. Chris Cannon (R-UT) introduced the Federal Land Asset Inventory Reform (or “FLAIR”) Act. The bill requires the Secretary of the Interior to inventory all federal lands, including the public lands, in accordance with the georeferencing standards established in the 1980 NRC report. The bill was introduced in the last session of Congress as H.R. 1370 and garnered the support of 31 co-sponsors, but was not enacted into law. Rep. Cannon is preparing a new FLAIR Act for reintroduction in the 100th Congress.

With the FLAIR Act, Rep. Cannon also seeks to remedy another land records problem in the federal government: a proliferation of old, inaccurate, non-interoperable databases. In a testimony before the House Appropriations Subcommittee in 2005, then Secretary of the Interior Gail Norton said her department maintains more than “100 property databases across dozens of computer operating systems.”3 The FLAIR Act seeks an inventory of inventories to determine and eliminate those that are obsolete or duplicative.

As this column goes to press, the NRC is planning to release an update to the 1980 study titled “Land Parcel Databases: A National Vision.” According to Professor David J. Cowen of the University of South Carolina, chairman of the NRC study panel, the study is designed to highlight the status of land parcel databases in the United States, provide a vision for the future and develop a strategy to complete this data layer. The report is expected to reaffirm the findings of the 1980 study; heighten the need for current, accurate and accessible parcel data; demonstrate that the revolution in GIS technology since 1980 makes a national parcel system more feasible; and endorse the FLAIR Act.

The Federal Geographic Data Committee, an interagency coordinating committee of federal agencies, has a Cadastral Data Subcommittee that is developing a national parcel data initiative known as “Parcel Data for the Nation.” This effort requires the participation of federal, state and local governments to work toward a common goal of the publication and access to parcel data nationwide.

Land records research could become easier if these initiatives are promptly implemented. Surveyors and their clients, as well as the tax-paying public, will all be beneficiaries.