“This wind is playing havoc with my base antenna.”
It was -20°F without the wind chill, and the frigid gale whipping across the prairie was not only blasting cold through the surveyor’s overalls but also threatening to shut down the whole job. It was just another winter survey in Montana, when construction halts and it’s time to catch up on field work—in this case supporting an award-winning decade-long project to enable state and tribal land mapping.
Since 2010, a coalition of Native American tribes along with state and federal agencies have been assembling Low Distortion Projections (LDPs), cross-origin resource sharing (CORS) base stations, and real-time survey-grade networks across Montana and Wyoming to improve cadastral and Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping capabilities in traditionally underserved regions.
In partnership with the Montana office of Northern Engineering & Consulting Inc. (NECI), the result has been more than anyone involved in the project envisioned when it began. A string of awards over the past 10 years speaks to its significance, the efforts put into it, and the impact the project has on tribal communities today and in the future.
Those associated with what became known as the Tribal Mapping Project point to the late “Big John” Smith as inspiration behind it. Until his death in 2016, Big John’s role as the Eastern Shoshone/Northern Arapaho Transportation Director revealed a lack of tribal members in the construction and surveying crews.
Smith asked his team, “Where are our surveyors? Why are we sending this work off the reservation?” At the same time, as illustrated by Michael Dennis, geodesist for the National Geodetic Survey, there were several shortcomings with traditional coordinate systems which particularly affected tribal lands due to their remoteness and location in large states such as Montana and Wyoming. “State Plane Coordinate Systems were developed to simplify surveying, which they do,” Dennis notes, but mountainous topography “creates a compromise between simpler coordinate systems and the number of those systems in use in a particular state.”
Howard Brown, Big John’s successor at the Wind River Inter-Tribal Council, transportation director for the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes, and a member of the national Tribal Transportation Program Coordinating Committee, notes that the Tribal Mapping Project wasn’t just about construction or public land maps. He says the cooperation required to build it has led to “one of the best relationships between tribes and states in the country.”
Brown emphasizes that without consensus, compromise, and trust between the groups, projects such as this would simply not be possible. Dennis agrees. “There is always resistance to new technologies and systems,” he says, noting that there are also opportunities to share resources and knowledge.
The impetus for local projections has been known for as long as mapping has existed—how to accurately depict a twodimensional network against the ellipsoid shape of Earth. Historically, surveying measurements were performed directly on the ground, with steel chains eventually giving way to radio and laser. But the measurements merely improved in precision, not in fundamental approach—surveyors still moved from one point to another, sequentially traversing and turning angles.
GPS has since provided vastly greater capability, but it has introduced new sources of error. Now, locations are measured indirectly by a receiver and the orbiting satellite network. From radio signals and a thousand calculations, a receiver reports location in latitude and longitude or other units depending on the chosen coordinate system—but how accurate are these values?
In practice, the surveyor requires a network of known points against which to compare new measurements, but unfortunately, in remote or mountainous areas, such known points have been few and far between. Also, distortion between the traditional State Plane Coordinate System and Earth’s elliptical shape causes undesirable errors and additional work to resolve. The expectations of modern cadastral records, construction tolerances, and large projects required additional calculations to perform even the simplest surveys on remote lands. With limited staff and few resources available who understood traditional surveying, a new system was desperately needed for tribal lands.
“The people network is as important as the survey network, if not more.”
DIRECTOR EASTERN SHOSHONE
AND NORTHERN ARAPAHO TRIBES
Paul Azure, a veteran of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and now a supervising engineering tech for the Fort Peck Reservation, has been involved with transportation projects since 1992 and was instrumental in the Tribal Mapping Project. Portrayed in our opening paragraph, he has been on the front lines of design and construction in challenging environments. “GIS is everywhere now—from city utilities to self-driving cars,” Azure says. “We want all tribal groups and departments to benefit [from accurate mapping].”
Further, he sees modern technology as key to the younger generation. “There aren’t many surveyors out here in tribal communities,” Azure says. “We need to hold on to those interested in GIS and GPS technology. These new systems are user-friendly and take advantage of the younger generation’s comfort with computer technology.”
The project began in 2012 with development and implementation of LDPs across four reservations, winning an ACEC Engineering Excellence Award in 2013. Montana’s Fort Peck, Fort Belknap, and Blackfeet tribes, along with the Wind River tribe in Wyoming, worked with Dennis and NECI to produce LDPs suitable to accommodate land far from each state’s central meridian (see figure 1 below). With LDPs available for each reservation, tribal surveys improved the accuracy of their measurements to match the precision available from modern equipment (see figure 2 below). Dennis notes this wasn’t particularly complicated but required the “acceptance of multiple projections where there used to be just one.”
Another award followed in 2015 when the team expanded to include Montana’s Crow tribe and develop a handbook to educate new surveyors and other users of the network. The handbook provides guidance to surveyors and engineers to follow in the tribes’ footsteps, using LDPs on future projects and training the next generation. The effort also fostered engagement with additional agencies, including the department of transportation and Marion County surveyors from the state of Oregon, who had prior experience with smaller local projections.
More recognition came in 2018 and 2020 with the incorporation of CORS stations and a Real-Time Network (RTN) (see figures 3a and 3b on page 41). The project took on a life of its own as more state agencies became involved—Montana Department of Transportation (MDT), the State Library GIS Department, Montana Association of Registered Land Surveyors, State of Washington GIS and RTN managers, and even private agricultural ventures who would make use of the finished product.
“Surveying is built on trust.”
MONTANA STATE LIBRARY
Several public agencies have since recognized the value of the tribes’ work and have collaborated to further improve accuracy and usability for the public. To build an accurate GIS base, tribal nations, the states of Montana and Wyoming, the United States Geological Survey, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Park Service partnered to conduct aerial lidar surveys over more than 10,000 square miles of tribal lands, providing detailed, easily accessible data to support development and resource conservation projects (see figure 4 on page 41). With this foundation, anyone surveying, designing, or mapping GIS data can coordinate and associate many projects onto one base and access it from anywhere in the world.
Robert Holliday, GIS analyst with the Montana State Library, notes that data becomes more valuable every year. “It’s streamlined the grant process for projects requiring mapping,” Holliday says. And “much larger projects—spanning whole counties or reservations” can be mapped with greater accuracy.
Holliday recognizes the value of the relationships built and reinforced as the project evolved. “Surveying is built on trust,” he says. There is much greater trust and collaboration between the indigenous tribes and state agencies, such as the library which hosts the public GIS data, and MDT, which is more open to sharing data and assistance.
Involved in the project from 2016 to 2020, Harry Barnes, former Blackfeet Tribal Council Chairman, praised the project’s value to the tribe and infrastructure improvements. The work clarified land boundaries, Barnes says, which few people paid attention to in the past. “Leadership requires accurate data, which the mapping project provided,” he says. But ultimately, it’s “all about relationships.”
His colleague, Blackfeet Transportation Director Donny White, also sees value in addition to the basic survey network. “We can employ and train interns from the tribes to help rebuild lost maps,” White says, adding that the project “raises our capability to take on any project.”
Several state and federal projects benefited from the connections and trust built between tribes and other government agencies. Barnes highlighted state and federal work, Highway 89 to the Canadian border, Glacier National Park, and other interjurisdictional road projects that have benefited from the alliances formed along with the survey network.
With each passing year, the project increases its usability and applicability, which stands in stark contrast to the initial resistance and even disbelief that such a system was even possible as recently as 10 years ago.
As straightforward as the techniques and technology have been, coordinating tribal councils, state land managers, federal agencies, and even international mapping bodies proved a greater challenge. Agreement and partnership did not come easily, as firms limited distribution of mapping products to the minimum required by regulation or project clients. And with some work on the system being somewhat experimental, it was difficult to fold into paying projects.
Achieving progress on the RTN, even with prior successes on the LDP and the handbook, required trust and willingness to share uncompensated work—to a degree considered unusual and even unprecedented between many of the groups involved. Perseverance on the part of the key players led to realization of the project and solidified bonds for the future.
Surveying as a profession has always been critical to land development, but it took more visionary stakeholders to see it as more than just a routine step in the process. In assembling groups to execute this project, it was difficult for the champions to convince others that this was more than just a “nice-to-have” for another road project. Brown of the Wind River tribe puts it this way: “The people network is as important as the survey network, if not more.”
“There aren’t many surveyors out here in tribal communities. We need to hold on to those interested in GIS and GPS technology.”
SUPERVISING ENGINEERING TECH
FORT PECK RESERVATION
Brown adds that the tribes have historically been years behind in technology and capability. This project builds not only credibility but also trust in the tribes’ commitment to progress. “This is just the beginning, even though it has taken four or five years of relationship-building,” he says.
Of course, it saves money on many projects, but the real value is in the mutual reliance that the states and tribes have formed with each other.
As a new generation of surveyors and engineers enters their professions, they have the benefit of the foresight of their elders brought into reality through the Tribal Mapping Project and a foundation for conservation as well as construction through GIS systems dependent on it.
Jason Burke is an engineering consultant for Kalium Resources in Billings, Montana, providing professional, technical, and management consulting services to global mining and industrial clients. Burke also is a veteran civil engineering industry writer.