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Front Page » October 15, 2002 » Opinion » Mapping Public Lands
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Mapping Public Lands


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By JEFFREY O. DURRANT, PhD


In 1785 Congress passed the General Land Ordinance that, among other objectives, directed that the newly acquired federal lands be mapped. This was the beginning of a rich tradition to map public lands that continues today. Perhaps nowhere is this legacy as healthy as in Utah where a number of individuals and organizations have been and continue to be involved in mapping public land.

Resource Management Plans map out primitive areas, areas of critical environmental concern, vehicle access routes, and many other designations, including Wilderness Study Areas.

Other groups look at these maps and see inadequacies or a different vision and produce their own maps.

In the Emery County scenario, the BLM maps WSAs; environmental organizations map out additional areas with "wilderness character;" in response the BLM re-maps areas with "wilderness" and "non-wilderness" character; meanwhile environmental coalitions re-map additional areas as also having "wild" attributes.

Emery County leaders, unhappy with these maps, produce their own vehicle maps that assert rights to numerous routes (which are then "un-mapped" by wilderness advocacy groups). In addition the county creates maps with potential Heritage Areas, National Conservation Areas, and, finally, a possible National Monument.

It is perhaps safe to say that here in Utah we are very prolific at producing maps of public land.

The authors of the book The Nature of Maps describe mapping as "the form of symbolization with special utility for encoding and transmitting human knowledge of the environment." While many maps are about transmitting concrete knowledge of a place, many others are directed at projecting power and attempting to control a place.

There is a rich literature not only on mapping for power but also on "counter-mapping." This has been defined by Hodgson and Schroeder as "mapping against dominant power structures. . . . Their intent [is to counter] dominant representations of property regimes and land use practices." Historically the purposes of counter-mapping have included: to gain recognition of land rights; demarcation of traditional territories; gather and guard traditional knowledge; management of traditional lands and resources; community awareness, mobilization and conflict resolution; and fostering community reunification and self-empowerment.

In Emery County's struggle over public land I often wonder who is dominant and who is "counter-mapping" in an attempt to counter this power. It could easily be argued that a couple of decades ago maps produced by relatively politically weak environmental groups were the counter-maps. Now I can certainly see the argument that rural community efforts such as Emery County's are attempting to "counter" the growing dominance and influence of environmentalists in the public lands arena.

Regardless of who is the mapper and who is the counter-mapper, there are a number of legitimate issues and dilemmas that surround the practice of counter-mapping that seem to apply well to the situation in Emery County.

There is the fear of governments that once they set the mapping process in motion and engage communities they may loose control of the political process, a fear that can go both ways as Emery County has found out.

There is also the question as to whether or not "counter maps" can actually "counter" centralized political authority. Because many maps focus on external boundaries rather than internal land tenure, there is concern across the globe that if you demarcate traditional lands then you place them in the legal/institutional arena and certain people may get rights and do things at the expense of former users.

Related to this concern is the fear that maps may be used by one interest group to gain control at the expense of another. The concept of community may be oversimplified in the mapping process to reflect an imaginary, unified group, when in reality community is a complex mix of people with different levels of vulnerability and conflicting interests that might be exacerbated by the process.

Many counter-mapping situations evolve because local people feel forced to do something to protect their rights before they are taken from them. As one man told a researcher in Tanzania, "If we don't make the hard choices now about where to draw boundaries around our own resources, those people are going to draw them for us."

As public lands in Utah continue to be mapped and counter-mapped it is interesting to reflect on the numerous mapping struggles around the world and consider which experiences offer similarities with our own struggle. Utah is certainly different than Tanzania, Indonesia's West Kalimantan, and many other areas, but struggles over land in these areas often provide insight and amazingly similar questions, concerns, and dilemmas. (Jeffrey O. Durrant is with the Department of Geography at Brigham Young University.)


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