New county surveyor settling into new role, starting GIS project
February 21, 2011
When Peter Epp was growing up in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, there weren't any schools that offered surveying degrees.
In fact, the trade Epp took up to pay the bills years later isn't one many people know about, understand or think of as a viable profession growing up, he said.
But, Epp got his start as a surveyor down in a muddy hole.
The now 62-year-old Craig resident and newly minted Moffat County Surveyor was working on a surveying crew for Saskatchewan's Department of Agriculture at the time.
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During his first day on the job in 1967, he was assigned to replace a drainage pipe in a soggy and swampy hole blasted into the ground of Hudson Bay.
"They couldn't get the pump in the way it was supposed to, so I got a pair of chest waders on and went down into the hole and got it in there," he said.
But, a spark lit inside Epp and within a few decades, he would become a licensed surveyor, move to the U.S., start a business and become an elected official in the county that quickly became home.
Despite being sworn into office little more than a month ago, Epp is starting a new project to bring much of his life's work in the area to the Internet for the benefit of the county, he said.
In 1970, three years after taking the job with the Department of Agriculture, Epp was promoted to crew chief. In those three years, he started slowly learning his profession — from using tapes and sticks in the ground to cutting lines through the thick Canadian timber with a chainsaw to accurately take measurements.
But, Epp soon found himself without a paycheck.
"With the government, you always got laid off," he said. "So, the last time I got laid off, they also laid off my supervisor who had been there for 13 years. So I said, 'This doesn't look too promising.'"
Epp went to work with a Shell Oil survey group that was looking for oil and gas above the Arctic Circle.
He worked the brutal winter — January to March — and the job was an experience he wouldn't soon forget. Not just because of the cold temperatures, though.
The crew was often approached by hungry wildlife — once an Arctic wolf lurked nearby, which they were able to kill, and once a polar bear came out of the blinding white and killed one of the crewmen.
"It was a wild experience," he said.
Epp found a break from the wild when he was granted a working holiday to come to the U.S.
After bouncing from state to state, Epp set roots in Craig in October 1973. He started working for a now closed coal mine, studied under another surveyor and while working a railroad job, met a stranger who would change his life.
The contractor was working to lay rail and befriended Epp. After talking about Epp's moonlighting in private surveying, the man gave Epp $16,000 to buy enough equipment to start his own business.
"It was just a shock to me that he would have said go ahead and order $16,000 worth of equipment in 1978," he said. "So, I did."
Epp eventually got a loan and paid him back, but the kindness of the man gave the surveyor direction and in June 1978, he founded Epp & Associates. He now specializes in real estate plats and surveying for local coal mines and oil fields.
"When you think of it, it is those interesting little bits that got me to be here," he said.
In 2001, Epp became a dual citizen of the U.S. and Canada.
"To me, it is a real honor because I see the real value of what it is to be a U.S. citizen," he said, noting that starting a business in Canada is not as easy as it is in the states.
Last year, Epp ran a successful campaign for county surveyor as a Republican.
"I had never thought about it too much until I saw that they are just ordinary people doing things to help govern the county," he said of becoming an elected official.
The feeling of being sworn into office was "very profound," he said.
"It was an honor because I was thinking about the Founding Fathers and what they sacrificed to do it," he said.
The job of surveyor is loosely defined, Epp said. So, not being one to sit around, Epp decided to start a project to incorporate his work with his new position in hopes of providing a taxpayer benefit.
He hopes that goal will take shape in the form of a geographical information system, also called GIS mapping, available to county residents on the Internet.
Epp plans to take the more than 700 plats from the county he has and enter them into a digital system. He would then be able to tie any sort of information into that system like real estate transactions and property and mineral owners, among others.
"You can have it as an interactive map where you could bring up Moffat County and it would show roads and other features on there that you could identify and you could say, 'Oh, I want to know about this property,'" he said. "You could double-click on it and it would zoom in and as you get closer, you can find out more and more information."
Epp said the county has a rudimentary GIS system, but it is not assessable to the public. In the end, the project comes with a high cost, but Epp thinks if things go right, the GIS would streamline information gathering for users and reduce foot traffic in the Moffat County Courthouse.
Although Epp is still feeling out his new position, he said he wouldn't have wanted to do much else with his life.
"For me, I think it is the perfect combination of giving you the ability to work in the field, in the office, and to be innovative," he said.
An example of that innovation is evidenced in a remote controlled boat Epp built and mounted a GPS unit on top of to survey ponds.
He is also looking into mounting a video camera on top of a remote controlled lawn mower to survey stockpiles for coal mines. The camera could help him measure the size of more than a million tons of coal from about 2,000 feet away, he said.
"I feel like I have had a lot of opportunity to improve what I do just based on my own ideas," he said. "So, I really like the idea of that.
"I have friends that come from Denver that work here out of my office who are engineers — a much more difficult job than I do. But, they have a book and a computer and that's basically it, whereas I get to go out on my ATV or my snowmobile and do things like that. I just like a combination of a challenge in a physical sense, too."
Most people, Epp said, just envision someone who "goes out with a tape measure and an instrument and that's it."
But, it's much more, he said.
Surveying, innovation and the constantly changing techniques that come with it are now in his blood, he said.
"I go from surveying in the mountains to getting dirty under the ground snd ponds and stock piles" he said. "One time, I went out and surveyed where somebody shot an elk."