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Surveyors seek to preserve pieces of history

BEND — The Deschutes County Surveyor's Office was at the scene of the Two Bulls Fire a week after the smoke had settled.

Amongst the charred pine trees and brush, county workers searched in high temperatures for stones that had been marked and placed by federal land surveyors 143 years ago.

Logging operations were about to harvest and salvage timber that had not been completely destroyed by the fire, which began June 7, 2014.

Mike Berry, the county surveyor, said his office was scrambling to make sure it maintained the exact location of section corner and quarter corner stones, which began being used in the late 1700s to divide and define vast federal land tracts.

Preserving the original corner stones at the site of the fire was important in case of property boundary disputes in the future.

County workers spent hours turning over rocks looking for the chiseled markings that were made decades ago, when the now privately owned Skyline Forest was under federal control.

"It's (been) kind of a weird segue from 1871 to 2015," Berry said.

The county surveyor's office is now replacing the corner stones at the site of the fire with buried 2-foot-long steel pipes and brass caps, which indicate boundary information. The newer version is called a corner monument. The ongoing project at the site of the Two Bulls Fire is funded by a public land corner preservation fund within the county surveyor's office budget. The funding comes from fees collected by the county with property deed reports.

The original stone marker is placed next to the new steel pipe corner monument. The county has searched for about 30 of the original corner stones since the fire, and 14 were found and are being preserved.

The stones the county has found are cordoned off with pink and blue plastic ribbons so loggers and others know to avoid the area until the surveyor's office can update the land survey corners with buried steel pipes.

Berry said the project in the Skyline Forest is a unique opportunity. Typically the surveyor's office is involved in replacing corner monuments in more urban settings when there is new road construction or development.

Land surveying dates back to ancient Egypt when the Nile River would flood and property lines needed to be re-established. The rectangular survey system used in the American West was originally proposed by Thomas Jefferson.

The system established townships, each 6 miles by 6 miles in size. Within the townships are 36 square-mile sections defined by corner stones — a rock found on-site by a land surveyor at the time and marked with a chisel to reflect the township, section and other boundary information. The system includes quarter corner stones at the half-mile mark between section corners.

The stones are a reminder of the settlement process in the West as the federal government acquired large amounts of former Native American territory through treaties. The government attracted Western settlers with the Homestead Act of 1862, which allowed for eventual ownership if they improved the land.

The General Land Office, the predecessor of the Bureau of Land Management, surveyed Central Oregon in the 1860s and 1870s and placed the section corner markers.

"These are legal boundaries of thousands of tracts of land," Berry said.

Land use development and approval in Oregon relies heavily on the work done by federal land surveyors. The townships and section information for properties is included in land use decisions and recorded within deeds.

This week, Berry and Deschutes County Engineering Assistant Brad Mitchell placed a new quarter corner monument, which is still surrounded by burnt logs and a barren landscape.

The U.S. Forest Service couldn't find the specific quarter stone in a 1976 land survey, likely because it was covered in manzanita burned during the 2014 fire.

Berry's office uses GPS to record the exact location of the historic corner markers.

"GPS has just changed everything," Berry said.

Land surveyors in the 1800s used various measuring devices to establish the corners. They also established "bearing trees." The distance between the corner stone and these nearby trees was recorded in case the rock was moved.

Land surveying still requires four bearing trees to be recorded when setting a new corner marker, according to Berry.