Survey Stakes (Ecodefense)

The following is part of a series of posts converting to html the monkeywrenching tactics in Ecodefense: A Field Guide to Monkeywrenching(3rd edition). See also the PDF of the book.

“Always pull up survey stakes!” This was Ed Abbey’s advice to all outdoor visitors. It seems a great many people are following his advice. Wherever the machine has been spreading its destruction, be it in the city suburbs or in the remote backcountry, a near-epidemic of stake-pulling has the land rapers — be they Freddie bureaucrats or corporate developers — on the defensive. Interestingly, it is not just wild-eyed eco-radicals who are pulling stakes. Redneck hunters of the old school, the sort who pack in to get their Elk and who well know what impact development would have on their favorite hunting grounds — these folks are doing it, too. We’ve even heard of miners pulling up stakes from Freddie logging roads in Idaho — although we doubt they were motivated by lofty ideals — they just wanted to be left to their destructive activities in peace, undisturbed by rival rapists.

Unfortunately, a great deal of stake-pulling is haphazard. In fact, most stake-pulling is probably unplanned and done on impulse by someone just out for a hike. This is unfortunate on two counts. First, to pull a few survey stakes here and there, while leaving the bulk of them untouched, won’t slow the developers much. The surveyors will come to work, notice the damage done, curse a bit, and replace the missing stakes with a day or two of extra work. Little has been done to halt the machine, beyond making a simple gesture of defiance (not that there aren’t times when a gesture of defiance is better than nothing). Second, casual, spur of the moment stake-pulling is unfortunate because it exposes the monkeywrencher to possible arrest. And pulling up survey stakes is a crime. It is considered destruction of property, and someone taken in the act of removing survey stakes could be charged with a felony. At the very least, she will be charged with a misdemeanor. Howie Wolke in Wyoming received six months in the county jail and a $750 fine combined with $2500 of restitution to Chevron for pulling survey stakes on a proposed oil & gas exploration road in a roadless area — this was after he had plea-bargained a guilty plea to a misdemeanor in exchange for dropping felony charges which could have sent him to the state penitentiary for several years.

Yet stake-pulling, well-planned and systematically done, can be one of the most effective means of monkeywrenching. It requires no esoteric technical know-how and no specialized tools. It can be done with one monkeywrencher and one alert lookout. Moreover, the stake puller need not carry the onus that the tree and road spiker or bulldozer burner carries. And stake-pulling can be effective — very effective. While it is certainly possible to trash the wilderness without the benefit of scientific surveying — the crude roads bulldozed by half-assed small-time miners are the classic example — accurate surveying is essential for even the most mildly sophisticated construction projects. Logging haul roads, for instance, require precise gradients and curves — the faster the trucks can get the logs out, the greater the profit margin for the operators. Even more precise surveying is needed for the construction of buildings (corner locations and elevations are critical), the layout of water and sewer lines, and the like. If the surveyor’s work is obliterated before such a project is completed, their work must be redone before the project can proceed. A day of systematic monkeywrenching can result — and in numerous known cases has resulted — in many weeks of extra work for the survey crews. In those parts of the country where winter stops construction activities, a day or two of well-planned stake removal could easily postpone a project until the next year … and the next year. Done often enough and well enough, the trashing of the work of the surveyors can increase the costs of environmentally destructive projects to the point that the projects are canceled. After all, profits are the name of the game in the land rape business.

As we have said, surveying may precede a wide variety of development projects, whether it is a shopping mall gobbling up open space on the edge of a city, a new ski resort replacing Grizzly Bear habitat in a mountain meadow, or a new road gutting the heart of a previously roadless area for the loggers and the big oil corporations. The first tangible signs of all of these projects will most likely be the surveyors in their bright orange vests, leaving behind them a trail of confusing wooden stakes and multicolored ribbons.


The most ubiquitous form of development, at least in previously unviolated areas, is the road. Roads are of necessity a precursor of any large-scale development in the wilderness, whether it is for logging, mining, oil and gas exploration, or simply modern “industrial” tourism.

Roads range from paved, high-speed highways which may involve measurements down to the hundredths of a foot, through unpaved but still relatively sophisticated “all-weather” roads (the major trunk roads on the National Forests are of this variety) down to fairly crude logging “feeder” roads, which are measured, during the surveying phase, merely to the nearest foot. What all these roads have in common is that they require surveying.

For the sake of explanation, we will discuss the surveying of a typical low-grade logging road of the sort constructed on the public lands. Thousands of miles of these roads are built each year, generally at taxpayers’ expense, to the benefit of a few big logging companies and to the detriment of the forest. The basic principles used in this example would apply, with only minor differences, to the surveying of any road.

Our hypothetical road will be built into the “Last Stand Grove” on the Timber Sale National Forest. In the beginning, timber cruisers indicated the presence of “commercial” timber in the Last Stand Grove area. This may have originally happened many years ago, when even the Freddies didn’t think that the trees in Last Stand Grove were economically feasible to cut. But the bureaucracy has a long memory, and finally the day arrives when only remote and marginal stands of trees remain uncut. So the “timber beasts” schedule a sale in Last Stand Grove — no matter that only five million board feet of timber will be sold in return for the construction of ten or twelve miles of new road — since their job is to meet the Forest’s annual projected “cut,” they don’t worry about economics.

Since each National Forest maintains a “Five-Year Timber Plan,” updated annually, the Last Stand Grove Timber Sale is planned five years ahead of the projected date. Sometimes due to fluctuations in the timber industry, the projected date may not be met, but as a rule about a year or two prior to the scheduled date of the sale, depending on available personnel and other work priorities, the actual surveying of the road network into the sale area begins. In the meantime, timber marking crews have probably already been sent into the sale area to mark trees for cutting (although sometimes this is not done until after the survey crews have begun laying out the roads).

Just as the timber cruising, “stand exams,” and marking are done by the Timber Branch of the Forest Service, the design and surveying of the road network fall under the jurisdiction of the Engineering Branch. The engineers study topographical maps and get a rough idea of the most feasible route for a road into the Last Stand Grove. The next step is to send a couple of people out into the woods to see if this route is practical. This crew flags the route as they go, by tying brightly-colored ribbon to the trees, while trying to keep within a certain grade. Sometimes the route roughly charted on the maps proves infeasible in the field due to the topography, and the engineers are forced to take a different approach. But generally they find a workable route. Their biggest difficulty is usually keeping within the required grade. Although short stretches of logging road may exceed 8 or 9 percent, engineers try to keep below 6 percent on most stretches. The steeper the road, the slower the haul traffic.

If you happen across a line of flagging in the woods, you may have encountered a road in the earliest stages of survey. Should you remove the flagging, you have probably cost the developers a couple of days’ work at the most. It would be better to wait until the surveying has progressed further, when monkeywrenching would have a greater effect. Incidentally, “flagging” is what surveyors call the brightly colored plastic tape that they use to mark their work and make it easy to locate. Red and orange are the colors most favored by surveyors, although they may use others. Exploiters besides surveyors may use flagging; timber crews frequently use it to mark sale boundaries, although they usually favor blue, yellow, or striped flagging.

After the engineers have roughly flagged the route of the road, a more proper survey is done. This employs a crew of three to five people. On large road projects, several crews may work simultaneously on different sections of the road. Sometimes the crews live in temporary housing (usually trailers, rarely tent camps) near the work area, but not usually. Often survey crews spend nearly as much time driving over forest roads as they do working in the woods.

The road survey crew performs a two-fold function. The survey crew precisely marks the location of the road on the ground, a route that will later be followed by the construction workers when the road is actually built. At the same time, the crew gathers and records data which will later be used in the actual design of the road. This data will enable the designers to estimate such things as the needed amounts of cut and fill, blasting, culverts or bridges, and the like. This information will be used to estimate construction costs. Nowadays, actual road design is generally done by computer, after all the pertinent data has been collected and processed.

The survey crew follows the line of preliminary flagging, laying out the route. Distances are measured from the beginning of the road, and are measured from point to point along the “centerline” of the route. Each point on the centerline called a “station” is numbered. Each station is marked, usually with a stake (and sometimes also in other ways, which will be described later). On low-grade logging roads, where precision is not essential, measurements are usually done by “chaining”: measuring with an engineer’s tape. These tapes are usually made of reinforced cloth, and are 50 or 100 feet long. For more precise measurements, it was formerly the practice to use a “steel chain,” which is a thin, flexible steel measuring tape up to 200 feet long. However, where sophisticated surveys are needed now it is common to employ various forms of “electronic distance meters,” or EDMs, which use a laser beam to take instantaneous and accurate measurements between the instrument and a “rodman” holding a reflector. Whatever the means used, the object is the same: the measurement of distances between stations along the centerline of the road.

On a low-grade logging road such as the one to the Last Stand Grove, stations may be placed at pre-set intervals of 50 feet or so. Stations are also placed wherever there is a “break” in the terrain. A “break” is a significant change in the terrain — it might be a slight hollow or a major rock outcrop. In complex terrain, stations are more closely spaced. Where the route crosses a stream, for instance, stations might be placed at the top of the banks, at the actual edge of the stream, and in the center of the stream. Stations are also placed at any point where the centerline of the road changes direction.

The survey crew makes a note of anything of significance in the terrain at each station, and also generally runs a “cross-section.” In a cross-section, an imaginary line is plotted at right angles to the centerline of the road. The crew takes a chain out 50 or 100 feet above and below the centerline and records differences in elevation at various distances from the centerline. For low-grade roads this is done by simply recording angles from the centerline with a clinometer or hand level. In more sophisticated surveys a tripod-mounted level is set up over the centerline station to record exact elevation differences along the cross-section. Occasionally, stakes are placed above and below the centerline along the line of each cross-section (“cross-section stakes”).

When the crew “puts in” a station, they place a stake with the numerical designation of that station in the ground. On a low-grade road, the survey stake itself is the only indicator of the station. In more elaborate surveys, where precise distances are required, the station is marked by a nail or a “hub and tack.” A hub is a fat (usually 2” x 2”) stake which is pounded flush into the ground — a small tack is then placed in the top at the precise location of the station. This is of importance to the monkeywrencher, since if you want to do a thorough job of monkeywrenching a survey project, you need to remove everything — every bit you leave will make the job of re-surveying easier — yet you may not notice a hub flush with the ground and almost certainly will not notice something as small as a nail, unless you know to look for such things around survey stakes.

Sometimes, especially in areas with heavy cattle grazing, small colored flags attached to long wires are fastened to the point of a stake or hub before it is driven into the ground. These flags make the stakes easier to locate, but their real purpose is to make the survey animal-proof. Survey stakes are frequently pulled out of the ground or broken off due to the activities of cows or other large herbivores (cows as monkeywrenchers?). Often the stake is totally absent but the flag remains. Monkeywrenchers should be sure to pull up such flags, and look for a hub — it may be covered with a layer of dirt, pine needles, or the like.

Stakes are numbered beginning with the starting point of the road. The numbering system used is fairly standard, and a brief explanation may be of some use to the serious monkeywrencher. Theoretically, the starting station on a road would be “zero,” which would be written as “0000,” since it’s a four digit system measured in feet. A station 50 feet from the starting point would be written as “0050.” It is common, though, to start out at 1000’ (“1000”) to allow for later adjustments in the design. So if “1000” is the beginning station in a road, a station 250 feet farther down the centerline would be written as “1250,” and one 1000 feet from the starting point would be written as “2000.” You can therefore determine by the station numbers where you are in relation to the starting point of a line of survey stakes-if you cross a survey line in the woods at station “6200,” for example, you are likely about a mile from the starting point (assuming the first station was “1000”). Of course, only exploration will tell you how far the stakes go in the opposite direction — unless you have some “inside” information on the project.

In addition to a number, each stake will probably have a letter or series of letters written on it. These may be “PT” or “POT,” which stand for “point on tangent,” or “PC” or “POC,” which stand for “point of curve.” A point on tangent is simply a station along a straight section of the centerline, while the point of curve is a station where the centerline either begins or ends a curve. On low-grade logging roads, the Freddies usually employ a simpler designation: stations on a straight line are designated with a “P,” for “point,” while stations at the beginning or end of a turn are designated “PI,” for “point of intersection.” The importance of this to the monkeywrencher is that “PC” or “PI” stations, where the road will change direction, are more critical than the stations on a straight line. At “PC,” “POC,” and “PI” stations, the survey crews, in addition to their usual cross-section, also record the angle and direction of the turn. For low-grade roads this is done with a hand or staff compass; on more sophisticated roads this is done with a theodolite or its electronic equivalent. Because the “loss” of a PC or PI station can necessitate a lot of replacement work, these stations often have special “reference points,” which are additional means of locating the station should the original hub and/or stake be removed or otherwise effaced.

Reference points (or “RPs,” as they are usually termed) are not inspired by monkeywrenchers, although their use has certainly become more common in areas where the deliberate removal of survey stakes has become a popular pastime. Survey stakes, hubs, and the other markings of survey crews are often obliterated in perfectly “innocent” ways. If a road is not immediately built, for example, the ravages of nature begin to take their toll. Stakes weather fast, flagging fades and eventually disintegrates, and some forest creatures speed the process up by gnawing on the stakes. An additional reason for the use of RPs is that when the construction workers arrive on the scene, they often accidentally knock over stakes before their usefulness is finished.

RPs may be placed several ways. Perhaps the simplest and most common is to set a hub and tack a given distance from the station (remember, it will probably be a “PC,” “POC,” or “PI” station). The hub and tack will be placed to the side of the roadway. In extremely hard ground a nail will probably be used instead of a hub and tack. The distance will vary, but it might be as far as 50’ away, although the distance has a lot to do with visibility. Then a second hub and tack (or nail) will be placed a number of feet beyond the first one, on a tangent (straight line) leading to the station that is being RP’d. Thus, if the original station is obliterated, by lining up the two RPs and measuring the distance it is possible to re-set the station. It is important for the prospective monkey-wrencher to check carefully for RPs when removing survey stakes. If you don’t find any on your first couple of “PC” or “PI” stations, it is probably safe to assume that there aren’t any, but if they are present a thorough job of monkeywrenching requires their removal. Fortunately, RPs are also usually marked by stakes and flagging, so that the surveyors can find them again.

Another way RPs are sometimes done is to place a hub and tack or nail a given distance off the centerline, measure the distance, and take a compass bearing from the RP to the centerline station. This method is not as accurate as the previous method, and is not likely to be employed on sophisticated surveys. On simple surveys in wooded terrain, RPs usually consist of no more than a couple of stakes nailed to widely-separated trees away from the center-line. By simultaneously measuring known distances from those two stakes, the surveyors can relocate the original station. (No bearings are taken.)

Just before actual construction of a road begins, a final survey is done. Any changes in the centerline suggested in the final design are made. More importantly (for the monkeywrencher, at least) additional staking is done. “Slope stakes” are placed above and below the centerline. These stakes indicate such things as the top of the cut and the bottom of the fill. At stream crossings they indicate such things as the position of culverts. Slope stakes usually bear written information regarding the width of the roadway, depth of cut, and so on. Slope stakes are more for the benefit of the inspectors than the bulldozer operators, who rarely read them and knock them out with their ‘dozers as soon as work commences. The best time to monkeywrench a road survey is after the main survey has been completed but before slope staking begins. A monkeywrencher has far more stakes to remove if he or she waits until this final phase, and by then it is frequently too late to stop the road. The slope-staking crews sometimes work only a few days ahead of the ‘dozer crews.

Flagging — Survey crews leave lots of bright-colored flagging to mark their path. While this flagging may be offensive to the aesthetic sense, it certainly makes it easier for a monkeywrencher to locate all the stakes, hubs, and nails. Usually flagging is placed on the stakes themselves (although there is a trend to use pre-painted stakes instead — red or orange are the most common colors). Hubs are not flagged, since they are generally pounded flush into the ground, but nails have a strip of flagging tied around the head before they are driven into the ground. In addition, flagging is usually hung on a branch above the stake (in wooded country). Thus the centerline of the road is usually well-marked with flagging. When slope-staking is done, two additional lines of flagging (one above and one below the centerline) are usually placed. This flagging delineates the zone that will be cleared of trees ahead of the bulldozers. In addition to pulling out all stakes, nails, and hubs, the thorough monkey-wrencher should remove all flagging. The harder it is for the surveyors to relocate the route of a road, the more costly and time-consuming a re-survey will be.

A monkeywrencher removing stakes and flagging from a road project will quickly accumulate more stakes and flagging than can be conveniently carried. A good idea is to carry a pack in which to place stakes and flagging. Periodically, the monkeywrencher should detour some distance away from the route of the road, and dispose of this material in such a way that it is not likely to be easily seen. Burning has been suggested, but this is time-consuming and might jeopardize security, and in any event is not recommended for flagging, which is plastic. A better method is to bury the material. At the very least, stakes should be broken and all stakes and flagging hidden under logs or rocks. Resist the temptation to carry any of the material out with you once you’ve finished monkeywrenching a project. Stakes and flagging would constitute incriminating evidence should you be stopped and searched. (See Field Notes for additional and important security considerations.)

Construction Sites

Any development involving structures is extensively surveyed prior to construction. Not only are the locations of corners, water and sewer lines, and such important, but it is necessary to have precise elevations for foundations and to provide proper drainage for sewer lines. For these reasons the surveying done on construction sites is more precise than that done for most roads.

Monkeywrenching can seriously retard major construction projects.

The basic principles of surveying are the same as for roads, and you will find a profusion of hubs and tacks, nails and stakes around any major construction site. The main thing to keep in mind around a construction site is that reference points, or RPs, are almost certainly used for all major points of significance. This is because as soon as actual construction starts, all of the hubs, nails, and the like marking important locations get ripped out during excavation for the buildings, even though it is absolutely necessary to relocate all of these points. Therefore, well away from the building site you will find numerous RPs. A proper job of monkeywrenching will require removal of all of these, in addition to the hubs, stakes, and such on the actual building site.

On a construction site, the stakes will often carry a description of what they represent, as “water line,” “corner of building,” “edge of sidewalk,” and such. Frequently, longer-than-usual stakes are employed. These are called “laths,” and may be 2’ or 3’ long. Laths are also frequently used in the slope-staking of roads.


Offset Stakes — Survey stakes may be offset from the actual location of the station. This may be for several reasons. If the station falls on a rock where a stake cannot be driven, a masonry nail may be driven into the rock to mark the station, and the stake offset several feet. Sometimes the ground is simply too hard to admit a stake (but usually not a nail). On road reconstruction projects, where stations may fall in an existing roadway, stakes or laths are offset to the side of the road. You have probably seen these while driving down a highway about to be improved. If the existing road is unpaved, nails with flagging or shiners on them (a shiner is a small, bright metal disk through which a nail is driven) are driven into the actual station, while the stake bearing the station number is offset to the side of the road. If the existing road is paved, a masonry nail is driven into the pavement at the station, and the station number is spray-painted on the surface of the pavement.

When a stake is offset, the distance of the offset is written at the top of the stake, enclosed in a circle or oval. The writing on the stake faces the direction of the station. If you find such a stake, you can usually find the actual station by roughly measuring the distance written on the stake and searching for a nail. Sometimes a stake may be offset several feet from a hub, particularly in hard ground. A hub can sometimes be successfully driven into ground hard enough to shatter the thinner identifying stakes.

Bench Marks — A “bench mark” is a point of known elevation. The classic example is the USGS markers (usually a brass cap) which one finds frequently on mountain tops or other prominent locations. In many survey projects (including some road projects) it is necessary to know exact elevations. Working from a permanent bench mark, like a USGS bench mark, the surveyors establish the elevation of a number of “temporary bench marks” (“TBMs”) in the project area. Large, stable rocks with small protuberances are favorite subjects for temporary bench marks. The rock will frequently be spray-painted and the elevation of the protuberance written on the rock. Another oft-used method is to drive a large nail most of the way into a tree. The head of the nail is the TBM, and its elevation is usually written on a stake nailed to the tree. The tree will also probably be prominently flagged or spray-painted. While TBMs painted on rocks would be difficult to efface, nails in trees can either be driven all the way in and disguised or removed with a claw hammer.

Sometimes for major construction projects survey crews establish permanent bench marks at the construction site. These usually consist of small copper caps or larger (4”-5” diameter) aluminum ones set in concrete. The cap is attached to a metal rod (sometimes up to 2’ long) which is driven to within a few inches of the ground surface, after which a few inches of concrete are poured around the metal cap. These are called “monuments.” Removing one would probably require a shovel and/or pry bar. Needless to say, removal of a monument is illegal; in fact, it usually says so right on the metal cap.

Photo Panels — You have probably seen these in the woods. They consist of sheets of plastic, a foot or two wide and ten or more feet long, usually arranged in a cross or “X.” The plastic is usually white, although black plastic is sometimes used on a light-colored surface. The purpose of these is to aid in mapping by aerial photography. If you look at the center of the “X,” you will find a hub, nail, or piece of rebar. This marks a point with known coordinates (i.e., it has been set after the surveyors have run a traverse out to it). Several of these panels will be laid out in advance of a photo session. This may sound innocent, but such mapping is frequently done in connection with major construction projects. Unfortunately, photo panels are frequently left to rot in the woods after the job is done; effective monkeywrenching would have to be done during the short interval between the time they are laid out and the time the photos are taken — this sometimes is a matter of days, though it may be several weeks.

— Leather stocking

Field Notes

  • Tools — While little specialized equipment is necessary for the saboteur of survey stakes, a few items are helpful. As mentioned earlier, a pack to carry stakes, flagging, and other trash one might pick up is helpful. Don’t carry out anything that might be incriminating. Bury or otherwise conceal it away from the road or construction site.

    A claw hammer is useful for pulling nails out of trees or pavement, and even makes it simpler to remove nails from soft ground. It also can prove useful in removing hubs from hard ground. Give the head of the hub a few good whacks to one side or another. That will probably loosen the hub enough so that it can be pulled out by hand.

  • Security — Removing survey stakes may seem like a relatively innocuous occupation, but the authorities and the corporate minions do not consider it trivial. Always use a lookout. If you see anyone else in the vicinity, stop, get rid of anything incriminating, and get out of the area. Always have an escape route planned. Treat this activity as seriously as you would any other form of monkeywrenching.

    If you are working in an area in which there has been considerable monkey-wrenching, the authorities may well be on the lookout for saboteurs. Do not discount the possibility that a survey project may be staked out (no pun intended) or that someone may have followed you into the woods. It has been reported that on some highly-controversial timber sales the Freddies have resorted to putting invisible dyes on survey stakes. The idea apparently is that anyone touching these stakes will get some of the dye on their hands but not be aware of it, and that should they be apprehended, the dye would show up under ultraviolet light. Although it is not likely that this tactic will be widely used, since it will complicate the task of the surveyors and construction workers themselves, prospective monkeywrenchers should be aware of the lengths to which the authorities are prepared to go.

    Invisible dyes are really nothing new in law enforcement, and have long been used to mark money. If you suspect that the authorities might be using this technique in your area, take a few simple precautions: Wear cheap cotton gloves while monkeywrenching. Place the stakes, as they are removed, in a plastic trash bag. Avoid touching clothing with either gloves or stakes. Before leaving the area, dispose of gloves, stakes, and trash bag(s), preferably where they will never be found. Be sure that you have left no fingerprints on anything — be especially careful with the trash bags. At the earliest opportunity, wash the clothes you were wearing on your mission.

  • Do not neglect other tactics discussed in this book (road spiking, sand in the oil, etc.) to harass surveyors.

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