Wisconsin Land Economic Inventory – Bordner Survey

About the Bordner Survey

The Wisconsin Land Economic Inventory, or WLEI, was a comprehensive program of Wisconsin counties conducted from the 1920s through the 1940s that produced detailed, field-based maps with over 100 classes. The impetus for the WLEI was an environmental crisis in rural Wisconsin brought about by land use decisions made decades earlier, especially those associated with the careless logging of the original forests. By the 1920s, most forested land in northern Wisconsin had been cut, and attempts to farm cutover land often met with failure. Remediation efforts required accurate information about land use and land suitability for agriculture and forestry.

The WLEI was led by John Bordner, a Wisconsin farmer who earned a PhD in plant physiology in 1908. The first county completed was Bayfield in the far north in 1928. By 1938, all counties with the exception of Milwaukee had been surveyed and most were published by the mod-1940s. Over the years the project was funded by the state and the federal Works Project Administration.

The survey’s level of detail was unparalleled. Field workers crossed each square mile section of land at half-mile intervals, creating hand-drawn maps. These were later combined with air photo information to produce a composite map for each six-mile by six-mile township. The maps depicted agricultural and forest cover, including the types of crops grown, and the species, density, and diameter of trees. Cultural features were also recorded, including abandoned and inhabited buildings, improved and unimproved roads, telephone lines, schools, churches, sawmills, logging camps, mines, and cemeteries, to name a few. Physical features such as lakes, rivers, wetlands, beaches and shoals were also compiled. Today these maps provide a detailed inventory of the physical and cultural landscape of the state at a time of significant change.

The original paper maps from the Bordner Survey have been archived at the Wisconsin Historical Society. The maps have also been scanned by the University of Wisconsin Digital Collections Center and are available online. However, paper maps and scanned images cannot easily be used in a digital environment to perform analyses, merge with other map layers and air photos, or produce custom visualizations. To enable these capabilities, the maps must be digitized using GIS (Geographic Information Systems) software.

The Forest Landscape Ecology Lab, in the Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has been working for several years on the effort to digitize the Bordner maps. More recently, the State Cartographer’s Office, in the Department of Geography at UW-Madison, has joined the effort. The Bordner maps represent only one piece of the puzzle we ultimately want to put together. Our vision is to develop an online portal that allows users to access and visualize a host of historic GIS databases statewide.