The national mapping program, a small Interior Department agency that rarely attracts attention, has been quietly taking on new importance as an aid to developing energy resources in the West.

Technology has moved the 1,800-person agency from the days of the lone surveyor working months on tracts of misbegotten land to cartographers reading data from Landsat satellite imagery, computer-enhanced photographic composites (called orthophotoquads) and high-altitude aerial photography (useful for soil surveys, range management and urban planning).

"With the country's energy requirements being as acute as they are now, we've been given new priorities to help find that energy," said Rupert B. Southard Jr., who for the last four years has directed the program, a subagency of the Interior Department's U.S. Geological Survey.

Southard said the agency's champions include James G. Watt, whom Southard calls the first interior secretary in at least 20 years to take personal interest in the resources the agency can apply to the energy crisis.

"He personally made sure our budget cuts weren't as deep as they could have been," Southard said.

Traditionally, the U.S. Geological Survey has sought primarily to serve the nation's burgeoning urban population by providing basic data for road maps and topographic maps used by local, state and federal agencies. That priority is changing now.

"We knew we couldn't solve the energy problem, but we knew there needed to be good maps made for those searching for energy--especially oil, coal and geothermal sources--which were in areas we knew had been poorly mapped," Southard said. "In every case where there had not been good mapping we did it before anyone else got around to saying it was necessary."

Oil, gas, coal and geothermal energy companies, urban and regional planners, and virtually every federal and state agency use the work of the national mapping program as the basis for their own cartography. In all there are 17 federal agencies that are involved in cartographic work but most use basic surveying data compiled by the national mapping program.

The agency's product is now much more than highway maps. It includes terrain and hydrological maps that show land levels, drainage patterns and land ownership.

Southard came to the agency 32 years ago as a ground surveyor, a skill that is becoming a lost art. The basic mapmaker used to roam an area for months at a time with transit and tripod, but his job is changing and numbers decreasing. Basic cartography is now accomplished largely by airborne cameramen, computer operators and technicians monitoring Landsat imagery. The number of ground surveyors in the national mapping program has declined from about 500 to fewer than 100 in 20 years, Southard says.

Today, technicians man state-of-the-art equipment such as the $1 million Scitex computer that makes mapping more manageable, quick and precise, although expensive. "Still," notes Southard, "it's cheaper than sending out a field survey and examination team." The Scitex equipment is able to sort through bits of map information and meet highly specific requests. If a mapmaker wants roads in a given area, he asks for roads and that's all he gets. If he wants contour lines (delineating altitude), he gets contour lines.

For the energy search, technology has created digital terrain tapes--line drawings that appear to jump from a flat page to show contours, slopes and ridges and which aid geologists in searching for particular formations that might be energy reservoirs. Also available: futuristic Landsat imagery which, from 570 miles in space, is a developing technique is used to aid agricultural planning, forestry, geography, geology and hydrology.

"We've developed an interrelationship with new users--the folks in the energy field," Southard says. "We place their goals next to those of the Interior Department, to help develop untapped energy resources."