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Surveyors work to update county records using history, GPS

Hubbard County surveying tech Ryan Miller lines up an elevation shot for a project called LIDAR that the DNR asked the county to participate in. At left is engineering tech Henry Mack. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)1 / 2
Mike Branham is Hubbard County's survey chief. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)2 / 2

Hubbard County's survey department alternately finds employees chasing satellites and delving into the moldy archives of history.

Depends on the day.

Primarily formed to "re-monument" a federal survey of the county done in 1860, the department finds it's increasingly called into service to settle or head off boundary disputes.

"We'd rather not," said Mike Branstrom, who's been with the survey department 35 years.

But as the Natural Resource Department, otherwise known as forestry, logs further into the county's forestlands, a quick survey can head off a lengthy lawsuit over logging someone else's trees, Branstrom told the county board Jan. 3 in an annual progress report.

And although surveys have become increasingly high tech, they are not necessarily moving at light speed, he cautioned the board.

But satellite technology is catching up.

Hubbard County began using GPS (Global Positioning System) technology for accuracy in 2003.

"We try to get into areas where people are having issues," Branstrom told the board. "We did the easy stuff first. Now we're down to the hard stuff."

The county has 3,677 corners, with 2,267 already certified or in progress. Normally the department verifies 100 corners per year, but in 2011, other projects became a priority.

That "hard stuff " includes 414 certified corners that do not have coordinates. Those will be the projects that entail research into history.

Much of the information gathered in the field is being posted on the county's website, along with original field notes.

In 2011, the department completed 15 surveys for forestry that required monumentation and subdivision for one or more sections, to establish critical corners and boundary lines. Surveyors also completed six other surveys, including the controversial County Road 37 project that entailed grading a natural resources road. Residents along that corridor put up a 20-year fight to preserve the roadway as it was.

Once a point is established, the tedious process of certifying it ensues. And county survey books dating back to the 1890s have been scanned and uploaded to the website.

Satellite technology

GPS is a satellite-based navigation system comprised of 24 orbiting satellites owned by the U.S. Defense Department and free for use. The satellites orbit Earth twice a day. It's the catching that proves tricky.

To get a two dimensional shot, a GPS receiver must lock onto at least three of the satellites. For a 3D shot, at least four or more satellites must be locked on. The more satellites a GPS receiver can see, the greater the accuracy of the positioning.

"Buildings, terrain, electronic interference, or sometimes even dense foliage can block signal reception, causing position errors or possibly no position reading at all," the GPS website indicates.

"Sometimes we have to go back three, four times to get a shot out because the satellites move all day long," Branham told the board. "You'll get one 15 minutes after you left.

"My idea was to let them know we make every effort we can to get the shots with the GPS," he said of his presentation to the county board.

"Satellites moving, when you're working with canopy out in the trees, the more satellites you can get up in the air at the right time, in order to get centimeter accuracy, you have to get at least five satellites and they have to be locked for so long a time," Branham said.

"And so as they move, you lose them, they get behind trees and stuff, so if you've got 10 of them out there, you might be able to get five of 'em and different times of the day you get more satellites than others," he said.

"And even from day to day it's different. You can do what's called mission planning and you can find out where the satellites are what time of the day and you can try to make a plan to fit that," he said."

But more satellite opportunities are orbiting. A Russian system called GLONASS will give surveyors a whole new constellation of satellites. And another constellation called Galileo, a European system, is also coming online.

The more satellites in orbit, the less hit-and-miss the GPS technology will become, Branham assured.

"We're not hooked onto that yet but we expect to shortly so that'll give us more satellites," Branham said of Galileo. "All those things are going to improve our being able to get (shots) out in the woods."

The LIDAR project

Currently, surveyors are completing a contour survey of the county for the DNR called the LIDAR project.

LIDAR (Light Detection And Ranging) is an optical remote sensing technology that measures the distance to a target by illuminating that target with light, typically using laser pulses.

"It's 2-foot contour photos of the entire county and my guys are out surveying it, getting controls for that survey," Branham said.

"It's basically the same as sonar only in the air, not in the water," he explained. "It's a sonic type of thing. They go out and fly it and using the sonar they come up with a map and we go out and do controls so they adjust it and get within a couple feet of accuracy."

Surveyor Ryan Miller and Highway Department employee Henry Mack have been out in the northern half of Hubbard County.

"We're taking 100 shots throughout the county," Miller said. Each township gets five elevation shots.

"We take one in the open, one in grass, one in brush, one in trees and one urban shot," Miller said.

Then a flyover shoots radar down and the ground shots tell it what the elevation is for each point.

"It's not too much of a benefit to our department but for the other offices in the county, especially Environmental Services where water issues, bluffs on the lakes, they can tell elevations without going out to survey the lakes," Branham said.

"And they have quite a few issues around the lakes, the grade is too much, there's quite a few rules on what you can do with a certain type of grade."

And, like the boundary line disputes, those LIDAR readings will help mediate variance disputes over bluff impact issues and other terrain.

Has it worked?

The re-monumentation has caused problems as it straightens out areas that have been "out of whack" for a century or more.

"The more information we get, actually the more problems you come up with," Branham acknowledged. But it's important to get things right.

"Now with all the taxing, it was just done off the original government survey," he said. "They called out all the 40s, the government lots. When we go out and actually survey them now they're different. And so we had issues. Fortys were actually 20s when you get them subdivided and all those things, they just didn't know it before."

For tax reasons, landowners need assurances they're paying taxes on what they own and what is registered as theirs.

And as more corners around the county get settled, the clearer that tax picture becomes.

Branham has given brief thought to retirement after 35 years, but the lure of chasing more and more satellites keeps him grounded in Hubbard County.

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

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