Preparing to Set an Iron Post Survey Monument
From left:  Dave Meserve, Surveying Technician, the author, and Terry Kessel, 
Surveying Technician, in the Powder River Basin in 2001.

Powder River Basin Resurveys: 20 Years–16,000 Monuments

By Joel T. Ebner

In October 1988, I walked into BLM’s Gillette Project Office in Wyoming, which is in the heart of the mineral-rich Powder River Basin.  I had been hired as a land surveyor to conduct dependent resurveys and had just stepped into the office of the most intensive resurvey project ever undertaken by the BLM.  I was there to help the BLM fulfill its cadastral survey duties, which descended directly from the United States General Land Office.

The Powder River Basin is defined by a geological structure encompassing all of Campbell County and portions of seven other counties in northeastern Wyoming.  The terrain is dominated by sagebrush prairies and open rolling grasslands punctuated by red, rimrocked buttes and deep sandstone canyons that drain into the Powder River.  Wildlife in the area includes antelope, mule deer, coyotes, foxes, rabbits, and rattlesnakes.  But because of its vast quantities of coal, oil, and gas reserves, the Powder River Basin is best described with one word:  hydrocarbons.

Most of the surface in the basin (approximately 70 percent) is privately owned, but significant portions of the subsurface minerals were retained by the federal government when the lands were patented.  In addition, in every township, two sections (16 and 36) were reserved as school sections for the State of Wyoming.  The result is a mixture of mineral ownership, with the minerals in any given 40-acre parcel (lease unit) being privately, federally, or state owned.

The energy crisis of the 1970s made developing domestic energy resources a priority, and to the Powder River Basin, an area identified as having the largest onshore federal mineral reserves in the United States, that meant boom time.  So the boom was on, but because of antiquated surveys that were monumented with sticks and stones, reports of difficulties locating lease boundaries on the ground began pouring in from private surveying firms, landowners, and industry representatives.  BLM managers soon became concerned that these high-risk boundaries were being incorrectly located.

Through the support of BLM district and state managers, Wyoming’s congressional delegation, and private industry, the Gillette Project Office was established.  The office was opened on April 1, 1986, with the goal of resurveying 107 townships—an effort that encompassed some 2.5 million acres—in the Powder River Basin. 

The office was staffed with a project manager, assistant project manager, six land surveyors, a geodesist, and a staff assistant.  Eighteen temporary employees (three per crew) were hired to assist the land surveyors.  Each of the surveyors was assigned the task of resurveying one full township at a time, and it typically took around 3 months to complete a township.  Normally, a surveyor could complete two townships in a field season, which generally ran from the first week of April to the middle of October.  The winter months were spent producing the official returns (field notes and plats) of the surveys.

From 1986 through 1994, the number of field crews and level of production remained consistent, 80 townships were resurveyed, and approximately 11,000 monuments were set.  After 1994, due to a combination of declining funding, changing priorities, a slowdown in oil exploration, and the completion of much of the work, production levels gradually tapered off.

But the resurveys of full townships continued, with another land surveyor and I carrying on the project through the 2006 field season.  On May 25, 2007, I walked into the office for the last time, after 20 years of surveying in the basin; my main task for the day was closing the door and turning out the lights on the Gillette Project Office.  Mission accomplished!  In all, we completed the resurvey of 111 townships comprising more than 2.5 million acres, ran nearly 8,000 miles of survey line, and monumented approximately 16,000 corners.

Today the Powder River Basin is the nation’s preeminent coal producer, with the top ten producing mines in the country all located here, and Wyoming has led the nation in coal production since 1986.  The Powder River Basin is also a major oil producing area, with 9.7 million barrels produced from wells on federal estate in 2009.  But perhaps the biggest payoff from the resurvey project has occurred in recent years.  Intensive drilling for coalbed natural gas began in 1998, and as of 2012, nearly 27,000 wells had been drilled (each needing to be located in its proper 40-acre lease unit).  Current plans allow for another 51,000 wells to be drilled in the future.

Joel T. Ebner worked as a land surveyor in the Gillette Project Office for 20 years.  He is currently a senior land surveyor working at the BLM Wyoming State Office in Cheyenne, a position he has held for 4 years.