The U.S. General Land Office Public Land Survey (PLS) records are a valuable resource for studying pre-European settlement vegetation. However, these data were taken for legal, not ecological, purposes. In turn, the instructions the surveyors followed affected the data collected. For this reason, it has been suggested that the PLS data may not truly represent the surveyed landscapes. This study examined the PLS data of northern Wisconsin, U.S.A., to determine the extent of variability among surveyors. We statistically tested for differences among surveyors in recorded tree species, size, location, and distance from the survey point. While we cannot rule out effects from other influences (e.g., environmental factors), we found evidence suggesting some level of surveyor bias for four of five variables, including tree species and size. The PLS data remain one of the best records of pre-European settlement vegetation available. However, based on our findings, we recommend that projects using PLS records examine these data carefully. This assessment should include not only the choice of variables to be studied but also the spatial extent at which the data will be examined.
Additional publication details
Assessing large-scale surveyor variability in the historic forest data of the original U.S. Public Land Survey