Ask David Cowen what his passion is and you won’t have to wait a half-second for his answer: parcels.

Dr. Cowen, distinguished professor emeritus of geography at the University of South Carolina, worked on the 1980 National Research Council (NRC) report titled “Need for a Multipurpose Cadastre,” which recommended that every county government or municipality create an office of land information system to create and maintain its respective land-parcel register, including the recording of land information at the local level. And last year, he served as chairman of an NRC study panel that published a report regarding the critical need for parcel data titled “Land Parcel Data Base: A National Vision.”

“If the federal government had paid attention to the recommendations of the 1980 NRC report, we would have had an early warning system that could have prevented the subprime mortgage crisis and saved Bear Stearns,” Cowen states categorically. As evidence, he points to a GIS parcel-based map showing Denver home foreclosures that appeared on the front page of USA Today on April 2.[1]

In March, Bear Stearns, a Wall Street investment house with a shaky mortgage portfolio, was in a free fall that resulted in a single-day loss of 47 percent of its stock value.[2] The Federal Reserve invoked a rarely used Depression-era procedure to bolster the troubled investment house and also approved some $200 billion in loans to financial institutions. Cowen claims that if we had a national parcel system, or cadastre, as called for by the NRC in 1980, the nation would have had the ability to track changes in the housing market, such as a slight increase in defaults and foreclosures, early on. We could then have taken small steps to curb the crisis instead of having to take big steps that are now costing taxpayers billions of dollars.

The 1980 NRC report recommended that the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) designate a lead agency for the multipurpose cadastre. Recognizing that parcel information is collected at the local level, the panel suggested that each county government or municipality create an Office of Land Information System in coordination with such offices as the recorder of deeds, county surveyor, assessor, planner and county abstractor, if any, and create and maintain the land-parcel register locally. Specifically, the panel recommended:

• that federal legislation be prepared to authorize and fund a program to support the creation of a multipurpose cadastre in all parts of the nation;

• that federal cooperative agreements with state and/or local governments be established to conduct surveying and mapping operations under federal or state guidelines and to provide technical assistance and funding for these efforts; and

• that all federally funded programs that produce components of a multipurpose national cadastre be required to adhere to a federal plan that establishes the format for these components.

Dr. Cowen’s recent parcel report found that while GIS technology and local land records have improved, little progress has been made toward a national system. However, progress may now be in the works.

This past March, U.S. Reps. Ron Kind, D-Wis., and Chris Cannon, R-Utah, reintroduced the Federal Land Asset Inventory Reform (FLAIR) Act, H.R. 5532, in the U.S. House of Representatives. The bill, which is endorsed by the NRC panel on parcels, would create a multipurpose cadastre of all land owned by the federal government, providing a current and accurate parcel-based inventory of approximately one-third of the land area of the United States. Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, introduced S. 3043, a companion to the FLAIR Act bill, in the U.S. Senate on May 20.

The legislation also addresses another federal issue--the hundreds of individual, non-interoperable land inventories that dozens of federal agencies currently maintain at a cost of millions of dollars per year. The FLAIR Act calls for an inventory of inventories to identify those that would no longer be needed once a multipurpose cadastre is established.

The idea of a current, accurate inventory of federal land ownership has already been debated in the Senate. An omnibus federal lands and national parks bill was sought as a vehicle by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and GOP presidential candidate John McCain, R-Ariz., for a federal land inventory amendment. The underlying bill, S. 2739, had more than $200 million in additional federal land acquisitions and other activities. The Coburn-McCain amendment would have required an annual OMB report on the land owned by the federal government and the cost of that ownership. But it would not have instituted a parcel-based cadastre. The amendment was rejected on April 10, 2008, by a 63-30 vote.

Also in April, the National Geospatial Advisory Committee (NGAC), a panel created to provide non-federal stakeholder advice to the U.S. government, held its first meeting. Its first action was to develop a working plan that included the design of a National Geospatial Strategy that identifies participants, an organizational framework, and the definition of roles and responsibilities for governance, implementation and operational management. The strategy will also include a review of current data initiatives, such as Imagery for the Nation, The National Map and the National Parcel Data Base, to develop an action plan for their implementation.

“A lot of wonderful theme-based initiatives, including Elevation for the Nation, Imagery for the Nation and the Land Parcel Data Base, have been generated by the geospatial community. There is tremendous need and interest,” says Anne Hale Miglarese, PPS, chairman of the NGAC. “The goal of NGAC is to move forward with these initiatives in a thoughtful and efficient manner.”

Cowen says a national parcel database is inevitable. “It is the Holy Grail of GIS and a core of economic and political aspects of society. It is necessary, feasible, affordable and timely,” he says, pointing out that the 1980 report noted that the major obstacles in the development of a multipurpose cadastre were identified as organizational and institutional, not technical. While GIS and computer mapping technology have gone through revolutionary advancements over the past 28 years, the organizational and institutional barriers have changed little.

Why is Cowen more optimistic now? He points to several factors. First, there is significant activity in the private sector that will drive government to operate more economically and efficiently. “My wife jokes, ‘Why don’t you just put a bar code on every parcel?’” Cowen says. “She’s right. If FedEx can tell you where your package is while it is moving, then it should not be too hard to keep track of stationary parcels.”

He also points out that consumers will demand the efficiency of the parcel database. “The American homeowner is paying dearly for the inefficiencies in our real estate markets by paying extremely high property transaction costs because of the complexity in finding the needed property information,” Cowen says, citing a FIG paper.[3] He notes that in a post-9/11 and post-Hurricane Katrina environment, homeland security requirements demand national parcel data. Most programs of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) depend on geographic data that is at the parcel scale, he explains, listing the Critical Infrastructure Program as an example. This 2004 homeland security needs- assessment report identified parcel-layer data requirements for emergency preparedness, emergency response, damage assessment and other life-and-death applications.

Cowen also notes that several counties and states have implemented parcel-based cadastral systems, thus building demand and momentum at the national level. And he points out that the U.S. government has funded numerous foreign cadastres, an investment that far exceeds the cost to do so here at home.

A national parcel cadastre may be a bit like Mark Twain’s legendary comment about the weather: Everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything about it. But the fact that the OMB (an executive office of the president) issued its 2002 revision to Circular A-16 mandating the implementation of the National Spatial Data Infrastructure--including a cadastral layer--means that a foundational theme has been identified. Perhaps the vision of a standardized cadastral data set for all Americans isn’t far off.


1- “Denver foreclosures: one hard hit neighborhood at a glance,” USA Today,

2- Yalman Onaran, “JPMorgan Chase to Buy Bear Stearns for $240 Million,”, March 17, 2008.

3-Bengt Kjellson, “What Do Americans Pay for Not Having a Public LIS?” Proceedings of FIG XXII International Congress, Washington, D.C., April 19-26, 2002.