Media reveals Four Corners error - again

By Bill Donovan
Special to the Times

WINDOW ROCK, April 30, 2009

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It was a simple mistake but it means that the millions of people who have traveled to the Four Corners National Monument over the past century missed the mark.

Those who visit the monument invariably want to spend a few minutes on the exact spot - the only such spot in the United States in fact - where they can be in four states at once.

It turns out that after all these years, the spot where countless visitors have been photographed - often in rather undignified crablike poses - is not actually the point where Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah touch.

Blame GPS, the satellite technology that is gradually remaking the world from how it was drawn by early cartographers.

Truth be told, early surveys of the West were sloppy at best, and according to a story that got wide circulation in the U.S. media last week, the actual spot where four states converge is at least 1,800 feet from where people thought it was. Some recent surveys have placed it as much as 2.5 miles away from the location enshrined at the monument.

The mistake is being blamed on poor surveying techniques back in 1868, when it was first surveyed.

Ray Russell, director of the Navajo Nation's Parks & Recreation Department, said the granite and brass marker located at the reservation tourist attraction "is correct according to the law that was in effect at the time the survey was taken in the 1860s."

But does it mean all the bragging that visitors to the site have been doing to their friends and relatives is wrong?

Not exactly, says Dave Doyle, chief geodetic surveyor for the National Geodetic Survey, which oversees boundaries.

The reason, he said, is that all four states have adopted laws making the current boundaries legal, regardless of their accuracy. So under the law, the Four Corners is where history - and the monument - say it is, even if it's not.

In fact, the federal government and others have known for years that the plaque was in the wrong place. This fact has even been aired in previous news stories.

But this round of stories took on a life of their own and after the original reports in mid-April, the news has spread rapidly around the world and even on the Internet.

Doyle told reporters that no one in the government or at the monument is concerned.

"The majority of people who thought this was a big deal have been non-Natives," he said.

Steven Hall, who works for the Colorado Bureau of Reclamation, said Wednesday that the location of the monument was decided in 1925 by a U.S. Supreme Court decision - New Mexico v. Colorado.

"We've been having a hard time explaining to people this discrepancy is something everyone knew for the past 100 years," he said.

But the dispute may have a silver lining, at least for Navajos who sell to visitors or work at the monument.

Ever since the most recent stories about the error began circulating, attendance has increased.

Monument manager DeWayne Johnson said visitor numbers are actually up from last year because of all of the publicity.

Attendance peaked in 2004 at 260,000 and has been slowly declining. Last year the monument only attracted 200,000 visitors, he said.

And, as a story on National Public Radio suggested, enterprising Navajos might do well by setting up shop at the actual Four Corners and offering visitors an alternative to the official spot.

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