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Elephant Eating and Legal Mapping

Robert White

General Creighton Abrams once famously said that to eat an elephant, you take one bite at a time. Others disagree, noting that you can “get tired of elephant” pretty quickly, and “elephant begins to stink” when it sits around long enough. Elephant projects in various states of dismemberment seem to be strewn around the natural resource industries.

GIS land mapping projects fall into three general categories. In Public Land Survey States, 60-70% of the descriptions consist of relatively simple aliquot “quarter quarter” descriptions. The mapping of such descriptions is not without peril, however, as it should be done using curated data. Aliquot legal descriptions are readily understandable, though sections often deviate from Thomas Jefferson’s perfect one square mile ideal.

Another 10-15% of legal descriptions reference aliquot descriptions PLUS government lots. Government lot locations are unknowable unless you have access to the original BLM/GLO plats or a streaming web service such as WhiteStar Lots, Tracts, and Quarter Quarters. It can take considerable time to research and map lot descriptions without digital data.

The remaining land descriptions fall into the “stinky” category. Even very large companies seem to have shoe boxes full of complex land descriptions. Companies “map the easiest ones first” to achieve a quick win and then find later they did not have the time, budget or resources to map the more complicated descriptions. These legals, though sometimes smaller in number, can actually constitute the bulk of the time invested in a land mapping project. The end result of mapping the “quick win” aliquot descriptions first is an incomplete GIS database unsuited for decision making and devoid of organizational trust. Eventually, you will have to face the reality of the complexity of the entire project and dig in to accomplish it fully.


Metes and bounds descriptions (bearings and distances from a point of beginning) take the bulk of time and effort to map, particularly if the origin point is not readily identifiable on the map, or the descriptions exist buried inside ancient, faded documents written in French or Spanish and using unfamiliar units. Mapping difficult legals relies on access to imagery, parcel data, land survey data and considerable grit and experience to put it all together.

WhiteStar Legal Mapper, our Metes and Bounds ArcGIS Pro Add-In, plus associated streams of land survey, imagery and parcel data and our 30 year team expertise provide the tools necessary to cut your elephant project down to a manageable size.