The State of Alaska and the Interior Department have found yet another reason not to exchange greetings cards this holiday season.
The Bureau of Land Management unveiled a plan Dec. 19 to overhaul its land survey methodology in Alaska, an effort agency leaders claim could save $60 million and expedite the transfer of millions of acres of land the feds still owe the state.
BLM Director Neil Kornze told the Journal that the Interior agency will be employing a Direct Point Positioning Survey, or DPPS, system, which is based on advanced global positioning system technology to survey lands yet-to-be-conveyed to the State of Alaska.
Current survey practice requires small teams of BLM technicians to spend weeks in the bush driving “monuments” — markers, basically — into the ground at intervals of usually two miles along extensive parcel boundaries, according to the BLM.
Not surprisingly, it is an expensive process, and is how federal surveys have been done in the state since 1963, Kornze said, adding, “We think it’s more than past due for an update.”
He also noted the Alaska surveys would be the first widespread use of DPPS but BLM intends to eventually use it nationwide.
At statehood, the State of Alaska was granted right to 104 million acres of federal land. To date, BLM has surveyed and officially transferred about 65 million acres of the overall entitlement. The agency estimates finishing the traditional surveys could take another 20 years and cost the federal government more than $120 million.
The GPS-based DPPS should cut the need for physical monuments by more than 80 percent and instead use geospatial coordinates to mark boundaries in lieu of most of the monuments, according to BLM.
In a Dec. 19 letter to Gov. Bill Walker outlining the DPPS plan, Kornze wrote that it would be “fiscally irresponsible” for BLM to keep with the “inefficient and expensive survey method currently in use.”
He said the agency and the state have been testing and debating the DPPS system for three years.
“What we think we can do is — we can do these (survey) efforts at the cost; we can do them in half the time, if not faster; and the survey materials, the plats we provide to the state and others will be of a significant higher quality than what we provide today,” he said. “It’s an extraordinary opportunity and it’s the kind of smart innovation people want from government but they don’t feel like they see often enough.”
Because wrapping up the outstanding conveyances to the state will coincide with finishing the surveys, Kornze said moving to DPPS should be an “obvious win-win.”
However, Alaska’s land managers say their federal counterparts are glossing over critical flaws in the plan.
Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Andy Mack said in an interview that the state isn’t opposed to BLM trying to save money and innovate, but it can’t be done at the expense of reliability in the end product.
According to Mack, a DNR survey team tested the DPPS program near the northern Interior village of Bettles last summer and found it not up to par.
Further, BLM would likely have a similar stance if the roles were reversed, Mack added.
“Sometimes we re-convey land back to BLM and at one point in this process last summer BLM told us that they wouldn’t accept land if it only had global positioning survey methodology applied because it wouldn’t meet their own internal standards,” the DNR commissioner said.
The issue is not with the accuracy of the DPPS coordinates, but rather that the satellites establishing the coordinates can’t adjust for what’s actually happening on the ground.
John Kerr, president of the Anchorage-based firm SurvBase LLC, was part of a team of eight professionals from the National Society of Professional Surveyors that analyzed the DPPS system for DNR in a report published Nov. 14.
The report concluded that DPPS “fails in the fundamental surveying principle across America in which monuments, once established on the ground, control the location of the parcel of land.
Kerr said not only is the monument a surveying principle; it’s also been established as legal precedent in countless land dispute cases going back hundreds of years.
It’s also a classic case of Alaska’s uniqueness — and earthquakes — not fitting the national mold, he said further.
“When your monuments move through tectonic or seismic activity everything kind of moves in uniform. It all moves relative to itself; it all moves in harmony. And when you have coordinates; they don’t move,” Kerr explained.
For example, the monuments on Point MacKenzie across the water from Anchorage were set in 1918 and if coordinates had been taken at that time they would surely be well off from where the monuments stand today, he said, citing the 2002 Denali Fault earthquake in the Interior as a recent example of sudden and significant ground shift.
Kerr dismissed the notion that the surveyors’ association would oppose technology on the basis that it might lessen demand for trade expertise, contending surveyors have long embraced all sorts of innovations in their field. He added that his firm does not do the work DPPS could displace.
National Geodetic Survey Director Juliana Blackwell wrote in a quite technical three-page Nov. 17 letter to state Division of Mining, Land and Water officials that the movement of the North American tectonic plate in Alaska and other geophysical processes are not well documented.
Blackwell also noted that her agency, a subset of the federal Commerce Department, has “consistently recommended that surveyors re-observe existing passive control marks (monuments) to obtain accurate coordinates in the National Spatial Reference System, now and in the future.”
Kornze conceded the Professional Surveyors report “is not friendly” to the BLM plan, but countered by noting that it does conclude the DPPS system would be faster and potentially save federal money.
“It will require a number of innovations in regulation and effort on behalf of the state Legislature and potentially the courts over time, but (the report) didn’t say it wouldn’t work,” he said.
The Alaska Legislature would have to get involved because state law only allows the state to accept conveyed lands that have been surveyed under the traditionally prescribed method.
According to Kerr, a survey method similar to DPPS was tried, and scrapped, in Canada.
BLM also acknowledges it is disregarding a 1973 memorandum of understanding, or MOU, which set general surveying standards for land going from federal to Alaska ownership.
According to Kornze, however, BLM got no explanation as why the state wouldn’t sign an MOU drafted within the last month that called for the parties to work together to address the issues in the Society of Professional Surveyors report and go to DPPS full-time in November 2017.
“When you have something on the table as significant as Alaska getting the lands that it’s due and the question of whether you’re going to do that in a handful of years or whether you’re going to let that stretch out for a handful of additional decades — we think it’s important enough to innovate and we think saving $60 million for the American taxpayer and the Alaska taxpayer is important enough to innovate here and Alaska can be the standard, can set the new standard,” Kornze stressed.
Mack said the state is not against going to DPPS sometime in the future, but it’s not ready now. There is also a worry that DPPS implementation could turn federal cost savings into a state cost burden if Alaska has to defend the new survey method in court or set monuments on its own dime.
“Neil Kornze is saying we’re going to save all this money and it’s going to be lots faster. He’s not proven that; he doesn’t know that. Those are suggestions,” Mack said.
“What we’re saying to the (federal) government is: We’ll work on this; we’ll see if there’s a benefit but we’re not going to allow the government to simply shirk its responsibility and what it agreed to do.”
Kerr said he is also open to the idea that DPPS could work in Alaska, but said the BLM staff he has talked to aren’t keen on the plan as it stands either. He likened the current DPPS plan to the set of a spaghetti western.
“This is like the western town where you see the nice buildings and you open up the store and there’s just a desert behind the face of the building,” Kerr described. “There’s nothing but a movie set there. It sounds good; it looks good but when you test it it just doesn’t work.”
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at email@example.com.