On a warm July morning, a team from Pollard & Whited Surveying Inc., Citizen Potawatomi Nation Department of Realty staff and a helicopter pilot descended on the 320-acre Joseph Welch allotment to create a detailed, topographical analysis of the land from above using Light Detection and Ranging technology.

“Over time, there have been a number of development proposals come in on this site, and recently, we had another proposal,” Citizen Potawatomi Nation Director of Real Estate Services Charles Meloy explained. However, moving forward with any of the proposals required additional research on the Welch property.

Pete Franklin from Pollard & Whited Surveying Inc. watches from the ground during a CPN land allotment survey near Wanette, Oklahoma.

Collecting survey data helps the Nation make decisions about the land’s makeup and future use. CPN has and continues to conduct feasibility studies to ensure the development benefits the Tribe and its members. However, understanding the property’s physical characteristics is vital to economic development efforts.

The allotment

The land surveyed included 320 acres south of Highway 39 near Wanette, Oklahoma, that was allotted to Welch family members in the late 1800s. The property passed down from generation to generation, resulting in numerous undivided owners. CPN worked with individuals to purchase their portion, offering above market value, and the Nation now owns most of the original allotment.

“We didn’t put pressure on anybody. If they wanted to sell it, we told them we’d pay them premium; but if they didn’t want to sell it, that was alright,” Meloy said.

As the Nation works to purchase back Tribal land, research and data play a crucial role.

“When you survey a piece of land out here, it’s kind of sitting out in space. And then you survey another piece, and it’s sitting over here in space floating. But eventually, when you buy all the land in between, all of the surveys have to match and fit together,” Meloy said, which is why he ensures precision from his team and contractors.

Throughout the last two decades, CPN has purchased approximately 3,000 acres of Tribal land. To move property into trust, accurate data is key, and Pollard & Whited Surveying Inc.’s diligence helps the Nation meet all the requirements needed.

The survey

A few days prior to the survey, Pollard & Whited Surveying Inc. placed targets to help guide the operation. To create a topographical map, data collectors located on the ground and the helicopter had to synchronize. Once connected, the helicopter began running east to west across the property, just like a lawn mower, sending billions of near-infrared laser beams down to the ground as it moved. The beams then reflected back to the helicopter where computers collected the information.

Along with the GPS-equipped machines located on the allotment, the information gathered from above created a 3D model of the Welch allotment’s terrain. Although there are other methods of land surveying, using LIDAR technology is more accurate than collecting data on foot, especially in wooded areas.

“We’ve been able to do it by photogrammetry. The problem with that is it couldn’t get through the canopy. The advantage of LIDAR over other systems, whether it’s on the ground or photogrammetry, is it actually goes through the canopy, so that’s a major aspect of why we’re using the LIDAR here,” said Brad from Pollard & Whited Surveying Inc. based in Norman. Brad requested the Hownikan not reference his last name.

On smaller acreages, the Nation uses other survey methods that are more economical, but for a property the size of the Welch allotment, Meloy said the LIDAR technology met the Nation’s needs best.

Findings from the survey will help CPN make decisions surrounding the allotment’s use. Look for updates on the Welch allotment and Tribal economic development opportunities in future Hownikans.