Mapmaking by Powell and the USGS - David Nail

In the summer of 1980 I was a junior at Missouri State University taking my geology field camp course, and during that trip I purchased J.W. Powell’s The Exploration of the Colorado River and it Canyons. Now, 39 years later, I have the exciting privilege to be a member of the Sesquicentennial Colorado River Exploring Expedition (SCREE).  SCREE divided the route down the Green and Colorado rivers into multiple segments to allow for the exchange of USGS and other SCREE participants to get on and off the expedition. My segment started where the Colorado River became Lake Powell, the section through Glen Canyon.

 I help create maps at the USGS. Early in my USGS career I produced topographic maps using photogrammetric equipment and information from field personnel including their annotations on photographs, finished with my own manual scribing on mylar. Much has changed in topo-map production in the last 30 years of my career; mapmaking today involves high-tech equipment to gather data, and computing power to integrate it all. In fact, the USGS has been producing a digital USTopo ( at the rate of approximately 18,000 24K scale (7.5 minute) maps for the conterminous US every year since 2010, with complete coverage achieved in 2012. USTopo’s are on a three-year production cycle that continues to update full coverage of the lower 48 every three years.

Although digital map production and the advent of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) have changed how we create and interact with maps, some things haven’t changed. Topographic and geologic maps, in addition to the basemap layers upon which these maps are produced (i.e. hydrography, elevation, lithology, etc.) are still immensely important to the science community, to public policy, to recreationists, and to many other users. We still have a need to understand the landscape, the natural resources contained therein, the people, and the interconnectedness among all these disciplines.  This was Powell’s vision and desire during his 1869 exploration, that it be “developed into a survey, embracing the geography, geology, ethnography, and natural history of the country…” As the sole science agency for DOI (, the USGS continues in the tradition of J.W. Powell’s vision by serving the public as a multidisciplinary agency.

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