PLSS Corner Recovery in the Northwoods of Wisconsin

By: William C. Rohde, RLS

Preface: This treatise may ramble a bit, as it was prepared as it came to mind from time to time, likened to that achieved by chatting with fellow peers around a table or by quiet reminiscence in a favorite chair by the fireside on a cold and rainy autumn day, so partake of it all or in part as may be desired accordingly.

Although perhaps more evident in the relatively undisturbed northern forest and lake regions of Wisconsin, the probability of recovering original GLO survey corner evidence is always a likelihood; therefore, it is intended to encourage all Land Surveyors to always maintain an awareness thereof during future field or office PLSS corner recovery involvements.

Encourage forestry agencies to provide no-cut islands or peninsulas containing monumented PLSS corner locations, in timber harvest or reforestation areas, to aid future corner recovery and corner perpetuation; and subsequent aerial or satellite photography will also vividly highlight such locational imagery.

If available, use less predominant tree species for BTs in forested areas of same or similar species, which will aid future recovery of corner monument location by disassociation during field reconnaissance.

To aid future corner recovery in dense forested understory areas, clear all branches of trees to a height of 6 to 8 feet within an area around the corner monument of 8 feet minimum diameter; also pile the cut branches around the perimeter of the cutout opening as an additional visual recovery aid.

Spring is best for corner recovery as weather is mild, leaves are off, understory foliage is down, frost is minimal, bugs are still gone and it is a real time remedy for winter cabin fever.

Carefully look for and inspect noticeable hummocks of grass growth, collected leaves and other debris, which naturally occur and may be covering the remains of a decayed bearing tree stump or root crown, which together with other evidence may reestablish corner location by position verification; in many cases only a stump hole depression of very nearly obliterated wood remains. Inspect shell of decayed stumps carefully, inside and out, for blaze scaring or scribing; especially fire-charred stump or stub remains.

In many cases, overgrown blazes or other markings are not readily distinguished on older record bearing trees; however, by inspecting the tree face at different viewing angles and/or lighting conditions from a few feet to several feet distant, the bark blemish pattern will then normally be observed for both upper and lower face blazes. Perhaps the most noticeable overgrowth marks are those from a turtle blaze, made by chipping out the tree bark within two (2) diagonal ‘X’ axe cuts. A vertical fissure or cleavage is also a very common blaze scar. Most overgrowth consists of roll-over wood onto the blaze, thus preserving its face.

To replace an older corner monument with a new monument, use a clam type post hole digger, or preferably a hand soil auger, and dig a hole vertically along side of the older corner monument, then carefully tip the older monument into the dug hole and it should easily pull out. Then insert the new monument in the hole left by the old corner monument, and tamp backfill in plumb position; the old corner monument hole may also be easily deepened with the preferred soil auger if the monument must be set deeper to secure. Old iron pipes, rods or shafts can often be more easily pulled by first breaking the corrosive soil bond with a pipe wrench, followed by an upward twisting and pulling motion.

Unless previous record ties dictate otherwise, record corner monuments should be plumbed and secured in position prior to measurement of ties to new or existing reference or accessory monuments; a plumb and stable monument is truly demonstrative of its stately existence and truly deters any doubt of original intent.

If any record corner monument is found unsuitable by modern standards, replace it with an acceptable monument normally provided by the involved county; and upon replacement the replaced monument should be left on the ground next to the new monument when practical, or its disposal noted accordingly for public record. A corner marker post, also normally provided by the involved county, should also be set near the corner monument to aid future recovery and perpetuation. Always seek owner cooperation involving any placement of monumentation in improved areas, such as lawns, driveways and similar area surfaces.

According to Murphy’s Law, dead or windblown bearing trees will most likely fall onto that side of the tree with face blazes. Therefore, always roll-over and inspect the underside of a suspected BT; this may also necessitate cutting out the lower section of a larger tree with a chain saw, bow saw or axework. Many old record BTs are also found as decayed standing tree stubs, from a few feet to several feet tall.

Upon locating the position of a corner from recovered BT and/or other evidence, which has not been remonumented according to all available records since the original wood post was set by GLO survey at the corner, carefully remove ground vegetation and other debris to expose the surface of soil, and then very carefully scrape away thin layers of the soil with a hand trowel or flat bladed shovel. If the rotted remains of the wood post still exist, a round stain or discoloration will be revealed, which upon deeper scalping will normally get smaller in size and of a square shape, thus indicating the bottom end of the four squared point of the wood corner post. Quite often, the very end point of the wood post will be found intact at the depth it was set and/or the post hole will evidence an unnatural admixture of the original dug out and replaced soils.

In wetland areas, such as marshes, kegs and similar lowlands normally covered by water, it is very highly probable that the below water portion of an original GLO survey wood corner post will be recovered intact; particularly if it has existed in water since it was set. Such post will have normally decayed completely above the waterline, and any projection thereof will often be covered with moss growth. Upon carefully marking the location of an original corner post for remonumentation, upon removal it will usually appear as new as the day it was set in the surface water bed. I can recall one GLO post with a 4 way point which upon closer inspection revealed that it must have been pointed with an axe that had a notch in the blade edge.

Blazing and scribing of new bearing trees is not only injurious, but of disease consequence to the tree. If blazing or scribing is the chosen practice, they should be cleanly cut with a sharp blade to drain well at the lower edge and painted with a quality tree paint upon scribing; this should also be done upon the recovery of previously blazed and scribed bearing trees which are in suitable condition for referencing purposes .

In lieu of blazing and scribing of bearing trees, I drive a ¼" dia. by 2.5" long Parker Kalon (PK) stainless steel masonry/concrete nail with a 2" dia. steel fender washer stamped ‘BT’ into the tree bark at DBH facing the corner monument being referenced. Similarly, a ¼" dia. by 2.5" long PK nail is set with an unstamped 1.25" dia. steel fender washer into the tree bark on the right face of the tree, at a convenient height above grade to aid measurement of the corner tie distance. Whenever possible, eliminate the need to plumb any horizontal tie measurements to BTs; I also do not set witness tie points in the BT side facing the corner.

When working alone, leave the tie PK nail head project about 1/4" from the face bark so that the end ring of the steel tape may be placed over it to measure the tie distance to the corner monument; remember to correct for latter end ring measurement. Tie points should be placed above the level of corner monument top, and normal winter snowfall depth, to facilitate measurements and future recovery. If the base of the bearing tree is considerably higher or lower than the corner monument, cut a notched shelf in the base of tree at the root crown, and drive PK nail/washer vertically as a point for the reference tie measurement.

In the majority of cases, it is normally observed that the unblazed bark will not grow over the PK nail and washer set; if rare overgrowth should occur, a metal detector can be used to easily locate and reveal the BT steel nail/washer for future corner perpetuation or referencing purposes.

Monument permanency and future recovery are the primary considerations, found or set. Don’t get in the habit of taking only the minimum number of ties, as in most cases more are likely needed than not. Use care to set all monuments vertical or in a plumbed position and always reduce the chances of future disturbance by application of careful precautionary measures; an alternate sub-surface monument may also be needed.

To facilitate future recovery, always place a suitable marker post near witness monuments and any other accessory monuments that are used for referencing purposes in nearby open type terrain conditions. Also record additional locational measurements to any existing salient features which will assist in the future recovery of such monuments, such as distance and/or bearing from nearby culverts, signs, utility poles, streams, roadways, buildings and other prominent natural or artificial objects of suitable permanency.

If suitable, the corner, reference or accessory monuments should also project above grade; a maximum height of 30% of total length above grade is recommended to still assure monument stability. If available, build a cairn of nearby rocks or stones around the base of any corner monuments that are found or set in unstable soil conditions; be innovative in this respect.

Select healthy bearing tree species, 4" minimum diameter, and preferably in each directional quadrant. Carefully measure the magnetic bearing from the corner monument to the center of each bearing tree at DBH to nearest degree. If any areas are prone to local magnetic attraction anomalies, check the bearings to bearing trees by reversal observations; use mean of differing bearings for record notes. This method is also reliable for checking and adjusting longer compass lines that may be affected by local attraction, when running randoms or boundary retracements.

Keep compass way from nearby ferrous metal objects which may attract readings, such as eyeglasses, pen/pencil in compass hand, metal hat bands, brush knife and the like; and of course vehicles. Perhaps this simple precaution is the most often overlooked source of compass error in the field during corner recovery.

If available trees are unsuitable for corner referencing purposes, drive a capped steel rod or iron pipe monument, preferably a minimum of 30 inches long; or set a monument normally provided by the involved county for such purpose. In addition, I prefer to set such reference monuments near the right face of a described small diameter tree that may be available, to aid future recovery and perpetuation. Place top flush to grade in improved yard or lawn areas to prevent machinery damage and/or personal injury.

Nearby stable concrete or masonry structures and field rocks or boulders are also suitable as witness, reference or accessory monuments; either a ½" dia. by ½" deep stone drill hole or a 3" by 3" by ¼" deep chiseled cross cut is ideal for marking the tie point, together with a paint keel dressing for highlighting purposes; rub in the paint keel with protected index finger to improve permanency by several years.

Whenever possible at roadway intersections, reference, witness or accessory monuments for a corner monument location should be located in each quadrant, outside of existing or future right-of-way, to deter future disturbance or removal; if located in an open field subject to crop cultivation, monuments should be set to a minimum depth of 20" below grade. Always use the utmost precaution whenever monuments are being dug for, driven or set below grade, to avoid damage to existing utility services….check with the local utilities whenever in doubt...and always notify local governmental entities whenever practical.

When observing for scribed evidence on blazed bearing trees, use a pocket mirror or a small flashlight for highlighting purposes; and including any recovered corner monumentation below the ground for accurate identification, like stamped monument caps. Be alert to the apparent differences between any wood insect burrow marks versus actual scribed markings; the latter evidencing visible unnatural sharper edges and cross-grain ridging or striations in most cases.

Use extreme care when identifying doubtful bearing tree species; refer to a good tree species pocket guide. An 8 to 10 power pocket eye magnifier or loupe is also handy for distinguishing the cellular differences between hardwood and softwood species from a collected wood block specimen. Consult a forester if there is any doubt whatsoever, as proof must be positive in order to authenticate record BT remnants for corner location verification purposes. Decayed coniferous woods will also emit a pine sap smell in most cases.

When referring to original GLO field notes, always be alert to the possibility of entry errors by the Deputy Surveyor, such as reversal of compass bearings and quadrants, link miscounts or incorrect BT species; on occasion, BT references have been entered in the original field notes for the wrong corner!!

For corner monument maintenance or referencing purposes, the corners which are most easily locatable and accessible should be first attended to, as they are most often subject to direct damage, disturbance or removal occurrences than corner monuments located in remote areas.

PLSS corner monuments that may be needed more frequently for boundary survey purposes should also be first priority, such as within sections containing several parcels of land with differing ownership, or involving extensive private and/or public development or usage; existing and/or pending.

If alone in the field on corner recovery work, particularly in any remote areas, assure that others are fully informed of the location on a daily basis. A cellular phone is also recommended to be carried in the event of emergency situations and/or any communication requirements.

When not in use during fieldwork, keep hand cutting tools in protective cases to avoid serious injury; and especially machete’s, axes, saws or similar tools while walking or climbing. Continuous attention must be exercised to avoid tripping, falling and other unsafe conditions to prevent injury to self or others; remember that a sharp cutting tool is usually safer than a dull tool.

During field evidence recovery or other research efforts, never overlook the opportunity, to query adjoining property owners or occupants as a normally reliable informational source. If applicable, obtain a signed statement from any person who has witnessed the location of a previous monument, boundary or other evidence upon the basis of verified parol testimony or collateral evidence, even if pointed out or marked upon the ground by the witness within a reasonable degree of certainty; subject to further verification.

Assure that the latter is promptly referenced and recorded in recovery field notes. A standard field form for documentation of statements is recommended; as well as for any witnessed Polaroid photographs, notes, sketches or other collected field and/or documentary evidence. Always be investigative in every respect.

All corner recovery fieldwork activity must be promptly recorded with accuracy and detail by on the spot field notes; preferably in a bound rather than loose leaf fieldbook. Each fieldbook should have a title page, an index of contents and consecutively numbered pages for identity and reference purposes. Daily entries should reflect date, weather conditions and personnel; including names of witnesses to any recovery.

Obviously neatness and legibility are essential notekeeping qualities, particularly when the notes may be liable to exhibition in a court of law. All notes should be thoroughly reviewed, prior to leaving the field, to assure completeness. Never erase field note entries; line out and note changes above or by subscript.

The key word defining any corner recovery or boundary retracement effort is surely that of authenticity; which by Webster definition is "conforming to fact; worthy of trust; reliance or belief; having an undisputed origin; authoritative or genuine; executed with due process of law". Therefore, the primary effort is that of proving the undisputed origin of any land corner and/or boundary location, by an unrelentless research and chronological analysis of all related and available record and field evidence. This is particularly important concerning any lost or obliterated conditions, whereby every shred of collateral, extrinsic and parole evidence must be applied in lieu of reestablishment by proportionment methods; most certainly a last resort, as in many cases a corner location is obliterated rather than lost by GLO/BLM Manual definition.

There are numerous published references expounding upon invaluable survey retracement principles and methods, as well as adopted standards, which must be applied diligently. An adequate reference library is absolutely essential for any Land Surveyor, and it must always be maintained and upgraded accordingly; including a diary of corner recovery experiences involving unusual conditions or special applications.

The restoration of lost original government survey corners by 4-way double proportionate method may not apply in many instances, as the BLM Manual of Instructions prescribes the procedures involving corners which were originally established by 1 way, 2 way or 3 way measurement courses; refer to Section 5-25 through 5-29 in the 1973 BLM Manual of Surveying Instructions edition. Remember that an obliterated corner is not necessarily a lost corner, and normally can be restored from other evidence in most cases.

Field operations during fire prone conditions require a keen alertness and every precaution to prevent any ignition potential from smoking materials, chain saw operation or other observed or probable causes; equal considerations should also be given to threatening weather conditions and vehicular traffic.

The primary quasi-judicial function of any land surveyor, is certainly the recognition and the appreciation of the bona fide rights, claims or interests of any claimant, entryman, owner and occupant of land which may have been duly acquired, in good faith, under the law. Any failure to extend such professional courtesy, in a totally responsible manner, is unwarranted and most often results in potential liability or litigation; and also equally concerns any adjoiner, beneficiary, benefactor and the general public. Trespass with humility, with courtesy, with respect and with dignity at all times, if you are to benefit from full landowner cooperation.

Of particularly important reference, during retracement of original surveys by the Government Land Office or the Bureau of Land Management, is a copy of any Letter of Instruction or Special Instructions which may have been issued together with the contract and bond for such original surveys, and a certified copy of the original survey plat and field notes. In the majority of cases, such letters provided details as to the special purposes, intent and manner by which such surveys were to be completed by the contracted deputy surveyors, in addition to the issued General Instructions applicable to the contracted surveys.

When researching archival records for original government or other land surveys in Wisconsin, recognize that PLSS, reservation, private claims, military and other tract surveys may have been completed when Wisconsin was a part of the Michigan Western Territory from 1818 to 1836 when Wisconsin became a separate territory, as the records may be filed with the Michigan territorial papers; the National Archives branch in Chicago is an excellent resource for surveying records within the Northwest Territory area.

During inclement weather conditions spend as much time as possible at the local area county surveyor offices and other sources, so as to get fully acquainted with available surveying and mapping records; it being of particular advantage to attain knowledge of the history of land surveying activity by the previous surveyors involved, as each will have exhibited particular traits, habits and practices essential for corner recovery and boundary retracement requirements.

There are numerous tool and equipment items that should be made available to assist corner recovery, many being of basic importance, although some are a matter of personal preference; of noteworthy benefit nowadays, is use of a handheld GPS receiver for general field navigational and locational purposes.

I have been using a Garmin 45XL model with practical success the past two years; particularly the GOTO mode from my parked truck to a quad map corner location to be recovered, wherein a straight line course is almost impossible due to the many lakes, kegs and other impassable land features in northern Wisconsin. A dense forest canopy will limit its usage; more so in heavy conifer stands. However, offsets and vectors are often applicable by compass and pacing to PLSS corner locations from GPS stations sited in nearby canopy openings or other terrain clearings. I prefer locations by UTM coordinates in lieu of latitude and longitude.

A small boat and motor or canoe is a convenient mode of travel on streams or lakes to most meander corner locations, in lieu of tromping through wetlands with heavy boots; don’t forget the life vests and cushions. Such waterway journeys are indeed a refreshing change of pace...especially with fishing gear aboard!!

The preparation of the standard corner location record form must receive equal attention to every detail, accuracy and completeness, so as to fully document the preceding history of the found or set PLSS corner monument, and all recovery details which will unequivocally authenticate the legal propriety of the corner location and provide adequate locational detail for future land surveying, mapping, land records and land informational purposes. Statutory, Administrative Code, county and other local requirements must be adhered to with absolute conformity, in order to fully render our inherent professional responsibilities.

The plan view section of the form should be drafted to a designated scale and always indicate an oriented North arrow and the basis of reference for bearings. The original should exhibit the RLS seal and signature of the Land Surveyor in contrasting color; I use red for the seal imprint and green for my signature. Every corner location form should be a constructive masterpiece, for all intended purposes, as a permanent reference document in our public land records.

The revision of standard corner location record forms is encouraged, wherein adequate space should be incorporated for the inclusion of GPS locational data and overhead visibility conditions for all recovered PLSS corners. Whether or not of a survey or resource grade fixation, such data will serve as an invaluable corner recovery aid for future surveying and mapping requirements; a statewide standard form is needed.

I have developed a PLSS record form in a database format, so that it may be prepared, filed, indexed and published with a desktop computer system; excepting the graphical ties plan sketch to scale, which I find is much easier to draft by hand than to incorporate same by an integrated computer cad program.

Always maintain a cooperative and continuous liaison with all private and public surveyors in the local area, as well as land information personnel, concerning corner recovery and corner maintenance program requirements for future surveying, mapping and land record needs; team concept coordination is absolutely essential to assure proactive rather than passive cooperation and accomplishments.

Also remain abreast of surveying and mapping technological progress; including in particular, standards and practices involving landmark perpetuation, land records, land information and geographic surveying and mapping control system requirements at the grass roots level.

Never undertake any corner recovery without having fully researched all available records required for field reference purposes, nor limit the time and effort necessary for completion in a professional manner; this may require returning to a difficult corner recovery area on several occasions. Never give up in disgust if evidence is inadequate or doubtful….I very often delay such corner recoveries a few days or a week and then return with a refreshed opportunity to discover evidence that I had completely overlooked or had also misinterpreted out of previous frustration.

PLSS corner recovery is indeed a very rewarding, interesting and worthwhile experience, that obviously involves the underlying roots of our honorable and endearing profession, so we must be forever protective of such heritage by genuine, dedicated and resourceful servitude; it is surely our publicly entrusted duty and responsibility to do so.

Thank you for your kind attention…...and I hope and trust that you will literally recover well from it all!!

William C. Rohde, RLS 841

P.O. Box 82

Larsen, Wisconsin 54947

920-836-9930 Phone/FAX

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Revised: February 10, 1999