State irked at feds’ new GPS survey method

At statehood, Alaska was promised more than 100 million acres of land. So far, the federal government has transferred just 65 percent of it. That’s because it takes time to survey the land. At the current pace, it will take another 20 years. Today, the federal Bureau of Land Management announced it’s imposing a new surveying method to speed things up.

But the state is not happy about it.

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The current method for surveying is hard work, and it’s expensive. Surveyors have to fly into remote areas, run chainsaws through brush and place brass markers – called monuments – at two-mile intervals. The new method is based on GPS coordinates. BLM Director Neil Kornze said it requires far fewer monuments in the field and would save about $60 million.

“We’ve found that by applying GPS technology, the same type of technology that drives your smart phone, we can cut the time in half,” Kornze said. “We can cut costs in half and Alaskans can have the land that’s due to them.”

But this method, known as Direct Point Positioning Survey, is controversial. The state has been fighting it for years. Alaska Commissioner of Natural Resources Andy Mack said the federal government is violating an agreement to give the state land that’s been properly surveyed.

“The problem is, the methodology that has been proposed by the BLM is untested, and we’re not so sure that this isn’t simply passing on the costs … to the state,” Mack said.

Without the monuments in the ground, Mack said it’s not clear anyone who buys land from the state could record their purchase.

Steve Buchanan is a surveyor and past president Alaska Society of Professional Land Surveyors. He said those brass markers are the best evidence to show where a landowner’s property lines are.

“When someone goes out and they want to look and see where their land is, they look for monuments,” Buchanan said. “They find those monuments. They can see it. They can touch it. They know where their land is.”

With the DPPS system, Buchanan said there might not be a monument for many miles, so a landowner would have to pay to put them in.

“And it’s going to be very expensive,” Buchanan said. “It’s what I call a ‘survey debt’ that’s being passed on from the BLM to the state, and it could be passed from the state to whoever buys that land.”

Kornze, the BLM director, said the new GPS method will be a legally valid way to establish the state’s property lines. He said eventually the BLM will use it in other states, too.