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USGS digital map series, old and new, is inspiring for outdoor buffs


Let me just start this off by saying that I am an unrepentant map junkie. I have collected maps since I was a kid and would marvel at the maps provided occasionally in the monthly issues of National Geographic magazine. In the 1960s, there were still vast regions on maps of Africa and South American and Asia where modern men had not left footprints. To a kid, those maps took me to parts of the world still being explored, where hunters were finding exotic game, and where fisherman were catching species not yet catalogued in scientific literature. My imagination could soar on names of distant peaks and winding rivers. Those maps helped fire my passion for the outdoors and wild places, and maps have always been necessary and major component of all my outdoor activities since.

One of my greatest possessions is a set of U.S. Geological Survey 15-minute topographic maps of our local deserts and mountains that were given to me by Bobby Rowell, one of my high school English teachers (the man who duped me into taking over a small bird hunting newsletter he started in the late 1980s and ended up in my lap in 1996). A lot of my old desert rat chums loved those old 15-minute quadrangle maps because they were smaller than the newer 7 1/2-minute quads and showed four times the area with only slightly less detail. My set is particularly valuable because Rowell had marked the locations of many of the Department of Fish and Game guzzlers on his set. Alas, the USGS quit publishing 15-minute maps in the late 1980s or early 90s (some maps were available on shelves for some time), and if all of us who missed them had moaned at the same time, the sound could have been heard in Washington D.C. at USGS headquarters. Part of the attraction of those old maps was that they were all hand-drawn by a cartographer using field survey data and aerial images. Most were done before computers, and there was style in the hand-printing and flair in the symbols that showed the locations of wells or desert springs. It was easy to feel a connection to the cartographer and the field surveyors who provided him the data. Larger scale maps published even before the 15-minute quads had even more character that defined the times, and they were replaced by sanitized versions that were precise and consistent from map to map, region to region, state to state. Today’s maps are more accurate and contain precise, perfect information. There are no secrets on maps today, while the old maps still hinted at the hope of treasure to discover. OK, now I’m going to tell you a place where you can go on that magical carpet known as the Internet and find both the old and the new, where historic maps are presented along with the best of latest georeferenced digital maps available. It’s called The National Map (, a set of free products from the USGS. I will immediately warn you other map junkies that you can get lost on this site for hours and days, downloading maps, and then squealing for glee as they open up on your computer screen. The USGS has been working diligently over the past few years to digitize and update a complete, detailed map sequence that covers the entire country. This year the basic map (or map series) has been completed and everything is available for download on The National Map website. Pretending to have discovered everything available and all the applications and uses for them is not something I can do, but I have found some of the very cool maps and uses available that will make outdoor users who love maps salivate. From the Map Locator and Downloader page, there is a map of the entire United States. Once you zoom in on your desired location, you can see that the USGS 7 1/2-minute quad map outlines and names superimposed on the map. Use the “mark points” tool to put a mark on the master map and then click on that marker, and you are giving a list of every map ever published by the USGS that covers that marker point. Ever. Even more exciting, all of those maps can be downloaded as PDF files. You can compare the 1901 maps with the 1934 map, with the 1955 map, with the current high resolution digitized 7 1/2-minute map. The new maps have layers where you can overlay aerial photographs and add and subtract survey grids, legal boundaries, and geographic information. With a few additional downloads that run with PDF reader software, all the maps -- old and new -- are georeferenced so you can see the location of your cursor as a coordinate. I have been in a downloading frenzy. It has been fun to compare old maps side-by-side with the new maps. For example, comparing maps from the 1950s of the Colorado River with the latest maps makes you realize how much the river has been rerouted and channelized since then. Look at the maps that show today’s Cibola National Wildlife Refuge (south of Blythe) and you will see a river that has been radically altered and a graphic explanation of why the state line between Arizona and California doesn’t follow to current river channel but the river channel as it used to be. While I haven’t done it yet, I see a new external hard dive in my future so I have a place to store all the maps I will be downloading. That’s just fair warning for you other map junkies out there. END

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