Peter Folger Specialist in Energy and Natural Resources Policy
The federal government’s efforts to coordinate its geospatial activities, through the Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC) and the development of the National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI), include a strong emphasis on land parcel data. Land parcel databases (or cadastres) describe the rights, interests, and value of property. Ownership of land parcels is an important part of the legal, financial, and real estate system of a society. The Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is assigned the role of lead agency coordinating land parcel data for federal lands, and is responsible for performing cadastral surveys on all federal and Indian lands. According to BLM, “Cadastral surveys are the foundation for all land title records in the United States and provide federal and tribal land managers with information necessary for the management of their lands.”
Although BLM is steward of federal land parcel data and coordinator for cadastral data under the FGDC, a 2007 National Research Council (NRC) report found that a coordinated approach to federally managed parcel data did not exist. Legislation that would address some of the issues for creating a national cadastre (H.R. 1620, the Federal Land Asset Inventory Reform Act of 2011) was introduced in the 112th Congress. Similar legislation was introduced in the 111th Congress but was not enacted. Coordinating all land parcel data, including that produced for local and regional needs on non-federal lands, remains a challenge.
Why a national land parcel database? The National Geospatial Advisory Committee (NGAC) observed that the federal government’s land parcel data is missing an arrangement for acquiring the detailed property-related data necessary to make decisions during times of emergency, such as a natural disaster. In addition to emergency response to disasters, other possible needs for a national land parcel database include responding to the home mortgage foreclosure crisis, dealing with wildfires, managing energy resources on federal lands, and dealing with the effects of climate change. Some individual federal programs could benefit from improved estimates of the number of acres of federal land, such as the Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) program, which requires a precise tally of federal acres within counties in order to calculate federal payments to local governments.
Administrative options have also been proposed to achieve the vision for a land parcel database described in the 2007 NRC report: a distributed system of land parcel data housed with the appropriate data stewards but accessible through a web-based interface. Some recommend that the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Department of the Interior take a stronger hand in enforcing the requirements of OMB Circular A-16 and Executive Order 12906, which created the FGDC and instigated efforts to create the NSDI. NGAC also recommended a Geographic Information Officer within each federal department or agency, and a geospatial leadership and coordination function in the Executive Office of the President. The Obama Administration issued supplementary guidance to Circular A-16 on November 10, 2010, that could address some of the some of the issues raised in the NRC report, particularly regarding data sharing, coordination, and funding.
The NRC recommended both a federal land parcel coordinator and a national land parcel coordinator. The first would be responsible for federal lands and property; the second would coordinate parcel data from all sources, both public and private lands. A truly national land parcel cadastre would likely require strong partnerships between the federal government and state and local governments.
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