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The National Map is a feat of modern-day cartography. It also reveals our country’s shifting priorities.

By Timothy A. Schuler

Lisa Orr, ASLA, was 11 years old when she attended her first West Virginia funeral. Her great-grandmother, Susan Bolyard Summers, had died at the age of 102 and was being buried in the family cemetery, behind a little country church called Mount Zion. Orr’s family drove the hour and a half from Morgantown, in the northern part of the state, to rural Preston County, winding through a tangled warren of hills and hollows and passing a dozen other hilltop cemeteries before reaching their destination.

The trip made a lasting impression on Orr. Preston County was so unlike her life in Morgantown: The landscape was as breathtaking as it was formidable. “It’s hard to explain how rugged the territory is,” she says, speaking from her office at West Virginia University (WVU), where she teaches landscape architecture. “It’s like a mini-Grand Canyon everywhere you go.” It illuminated the hardscrabble life that her great-grandmother had lived, living on foraged chestnuts and whatever else would grow in Preston County’s rocky soil. And it gave Orr her first glimpse into the role these cemeteries played in local people’s lives.

Caring for these places, she learned, was part of many families’ cultural heritage, including her own. “Part of my grandmother’s life was just visiting cemeteries,” she says, recalling summers at her grandmother’s farm in Pennsylvania. “You go and you take care of the cemetery, you pull weeds, you leave some posies, as my grandmother would say.” Many cemeteries in rural West Virginia doubled as social spaces, with picnic shelters for family reunions or even just Sunday lunch.

So began a lifelong fascination with Appalachia’s rural cemeteries, vernacular landscapes that are “designed but not,” Orr says. It became her research focus in graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley and has remained so at WVU.

As is often the case, the cemetery grounds climb the hill behind the church building. Photo by Lisa Orr, ASLA.

In 2014, Orr made a troubling discovery. At Berkeley, she’d used historical topographic maps created by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to catalog the region’s cemeteries. At WVU, she went to the Natural Resource Analysis Center, where the research coordinator, Jacquelyn M. Strager, showed her how to access the USGS’s Geographic Names Information System (GNIS), an electronic database of practically every building, bridge, and, yes, cemetery in the United States. Every cemetery in Preston County should be in the GNIS, Strager said. All she had to do was run a report.

“So [she] ran this report, and I knew instantly it was wrong,” Orr recalls. “I mean really wrong.” The database listed about forty cemeteries for Preston County, when Orr knew the number was closer to one hundred and forty. She was alarmed. Why weren’t these places accounted for?

An analysis of Mount Zion Cemetery reveals characteristics it shares with other rural West Virginia cemeteries, including a picnic shelter. Photo by Lisa Orr, ASLA.

Orr got a grant to find out. She compared the USGS’s paper topo maps to the data that makes up the National Map, a multilayered, digital trove of orthoimagery, hydrography, land cover, and other geographic information that in 2002 began to replace those paper maps. (Digital scans of the USGS topo maps are still available for download.) Orr looked first for Mount Zion, finding the church on maps from 1926 and 1977 but not on the National Map, which also is managed by the USGS. She repeated the process for all of Preston County. It was just as she feared; she found 97 cemeteries missing.

As Orr learned the inner workings of the National Map and began to compile her research, she made an even more startling discovery. Beginning October 1, 2014, the USGS would “suspend the maintenance of some administrative (i.e., cultural or man-made) feature names in the National Map.” Those features that would be maintained, a list that included cemeteries but not churches, would be done solely through the work of volunteers, who could submit changes as part of the National Map Corps, a group of about 500 volunteers who help edit and augment the USGS’s data. When she read that, Orr was dumbfounded.

“I’m sure that I yelled something,” Orr says. She immediately shared the news with her colleagues in the department, many of whom were just as incredulous. “It’s not accurate!” Orr remembers thinking. “You’re going to take this information that wasn’t right to begin with, put [it] in the National Map, and then not update it?” Suddenly, the fate of Mount Zion seemed all the more precarious. Orr knew the cemetery was still there. And yet according to the USGS, a federal agency once charged with mapping the United States, it no longer existed.

No one knows precisely when the cemetery at Mount Zion disappeared, but it seems to have been a victim of technology, orphaned by a digitization process incapable of accounting for the complexity of cultural landscapes.

USGS surveyors in West Virginia in 1921. Photo courtesy USGS.

Originally created in 1890, what today is the GNIS began as a way to resolve disputes between place names, selecting a single federally approved name for geographic features like mountain peaks and waterfalls. In the 1970s, in order to create a comprehensive database, the Board on Geographic Names began collecting the names and locations of all geographic features, regardless of whether they had been disputed. Government contractors pored over the USGS’s 1:24,000 topographic maps, as well as those used by the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It was painstaking work, done by hand. Contractors created an entry for every place name and made note of its approximate location. In 1982, the USGS expanded its effort to include state and local maps, as well as other federal documents.

It’s impossible to know for sure why certain places never made it into the database, but Orr suspects the issue was technological: “I can imagine a really cumbersome database that didn’t allow for the flexibility that landscape features require,” she says. “Maybe Mount Zion could only be one or the other—it could only be a church or a cemetery—so they just decided to make it a church.” Because church data is not being maintained by the USGS, in such a scenario, Mount Zion would no longer appear on the National Map, despite its closely associated cemetery.

Mount Zion is not an anomaly. Maria McCormick, who manages the GNIS, says she sees discrepancies more often than she expected to. “It’s kind of odd, because you’ll go and see this historical map, and you’ll go, well, why isn’t that name brought forward [into GNIS]?”

Members of the National Map Corps, the group now responsible for maintaining map data, have run into the same issue. Most corps members are anonymous (the USGS requires only an e-mail address to sign up as a volunteer), and one of its most active volunteers goes by the name Queen of the Dead. She focuses almost exclusively on cemeteries, and her work has led her to the same realization as Orr: Many of Appalachia’s cemeteries have disappeared.

Queen of the Dead (who agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity) has edited more than 6,000 data points over the past four years, earning the corps’ highest distinction, the Squadron of Biplane Spectators. (Other volunteer honors include the Society of the Steel Tape, Circle of the Surveyor’s Compass, and Theodolite Assemblage.) Queen of the Dead has mapped cemeteries in California, Connecticut, Michigan, Kentucky, and West Virginia, among other places. In Wayne County, West Virginia, just 173 cemeteries of 255 survived the transition from paper maps to digital.

Queen of the Dead says the data also reveals regional disparities. In some parts of the country, historical map data matches that of the National Map, even in rural areas, such as Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. “Virtually all of the cemeteries with names in states like Minnesota or Connecticut or Arizona are in the digitized database,” she says. “The thing that’s really different about Appalachia, and definitely West Virginia, is that a lot of the cemeteries are family cemeteries, and they’re up in out-of-the-way hollows. I think there was a definite decision made not to go after that level of detail, to not try to get those cemeteries on the National Map.”

West Virginia has had a complicated relationship with its cemeteries. Many have fallen victim to coal mining’s mountaintop removal. Others have survived but are surrounded by active mines, remnant slivers of country landscapes surrounded by heavy, extractive industry. Of the features the National Map Corps members can add—schools, colleges and universities, fire stations and EMS facilities, law enforcement facilities, prisons, hospitals, cemeteries, and post offices—cemeteries are the most time-consuming to verify, says Erin Korris, who oversees the National Map Corps for the USGS. Unlike a school or hospital, cemeteries rarely have websites or contact persons, especially those like Mount Zion.

The USGS’s decision to maintain just 10 structures was a budgetary one. Resources, including people, are spread thin these days. Korris manages the corps’ mapping efforts with just two employees and three students. McCormick, in charge of the GNIS, is just as short-staffed. But the agency’s mission has also shifted over the years, evolving from a cartographic enterprise to one focused on scientific inquiry. Mapping now falls into just one of six mission areas, which include climate and land use change. The USGS plays a role in the Department of Homeland Security’s critical infrastructure program, and has its own disaster response mandate, exemplified by the Earthquake Hazards Program. In 1997, the agency changed its motto to “Science for a Changing World.”

When Orr, who for several years worked for the Red Cross, considers the feature classes being prioritized today on the National Map, she sees a focus on national security and disaster management. “In a post-9/11 world, that’s what it looks like to me,” she says.

The multiple data layers that make up the National Map are updated on a three-year cycle. Photo courtesy USGS.

Laurie Temple, who oversees the Structures Unit of the National Geospatial Technical Operations Center, which eventually receives the information being updated by corps members, says the National Map is necessarily a work in progress. US Topo, the ongoing series of quadrangle topographic maps created from national GIS databases, began as an image and a grid, she says. Then came contour lines. Then roads. “It’s been a gradual building of the content of US Topo since the time the program began,” she says. It wasn’t until 2011 that the first structures, fire stations, even appeared.

Through the work of the corps, Temple says, the National Map will continually improve, getting bigger and better, and more and more accurate, with time. However, “the USGS is not intended to be the database of the whole United States,” she says. “The features we collect are for our mission.”

Orr says she supports the agency’s efforts to combat climate change and other environmental issues. Cultural resources are not a priority, “and I wouldn’t necessarily argue that they should be,” she says. But she is concerned that historians, geographers, and other professionals who in the past have relied on USGS maps are unaware of the agency’s change in mission. “They call it the National Map, and then they say to you, ‘Well, we’re not really responsible for mapping the United States,’” she says. “But landscape architects need to know what we have and what we don’t have.”

Cemeteries are many things, including a window into the past—a reflection of early Americans’ lives and values and as important to preserve as the ruins of past civilizations. Both Orr and Queen of the Dead believe this fervently. And mapping, they say, is a crucial first step in protecting these places. “My position is, if it was there, and it was on the historical topo maps, we need that as part of the national archive,” Queen of the Dead says.

Given the fate of some of West Virginia’s country cemeteries, Orr feels an urgency to educate other designers about these vernacular landscapes and their inherent fragility. Appalachian cemeteries have been moved to make way for mining and, in extreme cases, bulldozed into oblivion. “You might think that all cemeteries have some sort of magical protection,” Orr says, “but that isn’t true.”

Currently, Orr is mapping the mining towns that multiplied throughout West Virginia in the late 1800s. The ad hoc—and racially segregated— cemeteries that accompanied these towns have fared even worse than most. Orr hopes that by mapping them, she can return them to the public memory. “I really believe these places are intrinsically important,” she says, “and that if we walk away from paying attention to this, we are going to be very sorry.”

Timothy A. Schuler writes about landscape architecture, ecology, and urban design. He lives in Honolulu. 

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