Congress Holds Hearing on Red River Fight
By Gilad Edelman
July 29, 2014
Lawmakers at a U.S. House Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation meeting on Tuesday said they support legislation that aims to resolve a land dispute between the federal government and Texas landowners.
The Red River Private Property Protection Act, introduced by U.S. Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Clarendon, would affect a 116-mile stretch of land along the Red River that forms part of the border between Texas and Oklahoma. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management, citing court rulings, says the area belongs to the federal government. But Texans have used and lived on the land for years, holding deeds to it and paying taxes on it.
The bill would require the BLM, which has said it won’t decide what to do with the land until at least 2018, to transfer property within the disputed territory to landowners who can prove they hold a title through Texas county or state records.
“The status today is that private landowners cannot borrow money on their land, because the title is clouded," Thornberry said. "They cannot make improvements on the land, they cannot sell the land, because there is all this concern that the federal government is going to come in and make a claim on portions of these acres.”
Pat Canan, a Wichita Falls game warden, told lawmakers that BLM officials placed boundary markers on his land in 2008, laying claim to 1.7 miles between his house and the river that he considered his property.
Steve Ellis, deputy director of operations for the BLM, said the agency opposes the bill because it could force the federal government to transfer mineral rights without compensating U.S. taxpayers.
Ellis suggested that the BLM could deal with some of the land by selling it at fair market value. Lawmakers bristled at the idea.
“That’s why there’s such fear of a federal land grab,” said Thornberry.
Subcommittee Chairman U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said that the suggestion “sent a chill up my spine.”
“Let’s hope we can solve this problem for you very quickly,” Bishop told Canan.
A high-profile land dispute between the federal government and Texans who live along the Red River will be the subject of a hearing by the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday.
The Red River Private Property Protection Act, introduced by U.S. Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Clarendon, would direct the federal government to give up some of its claims to a 90,000-acre strip of land along the river’s south bank that has become the subject of controversy over ownership. Texans who have lived on the land for years, using the property, paying taxes on it and holding deeds to it, worry that the federal government is trying to take lands they claim to have long owned. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management, though, has cited court rulings holding that the federal government owns the land.
BLM officials and Pat Canan, a Texan whose land has been called into question, will testify at the hearing.
Controversy over the land began last year, when the BLM, a federal agency that manages nearly 250 million acres of public land and 700 million acres of mineral rights, announced that it would update its resource management plans in Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas to determine how the land will be used for the next 15 to 20 years. The BLM has said it won’t finalize its plan until 2018, leaving Texas landowners to wonder what will become of property they have long considered theirs.
This past April, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott sent a letter to the BLM accusing the agency of “threatening [Texans’] private property rights by claiming ownership over this territory” and urging it to disclose its plans for the land.
The dispute has a complicated history. In 1923, a fight between Texas and Oklahoma over oil and gas rights forced the U.S. Supreme Court to determine the boundary between the states. The court held that under an 1819 treaty between the U.S. and Spain, everything north of the middle of the river belonged to Oklahoma and everything below the south bank belonged to Texas. That left a strip of land between the south bank and the middle of the river that belonged to the federal government.
In the decades following that decision, the river shifted north, and new parcels of land on the south side were sold as parts of Texas. But in 1983, the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that because the shifting was the result of sudden, rather than gradual, changes, the Texas border remained where it had been fixed in 1923. That meant the new land between the Texas border and the river belonged to the federal government, and not to the people who considered it their property.
The BLM has not fully surveyed the area, so it is not clear how many acres the locals have claimed and how many are untouched.
The proposed legislation seeks to clear up the confusion — and keep the land in Texan hands — by directing the BLM to transfer deeds to landowners who can prove ownership through state and county records. Those properties would not be included in the bureau’s resource management plans.
“This hearing is one more step forward, and a very important one, in our efforts to assure landowners that their private property will be protected,” Thornberry said in a written statement. “Property owners deserve this certainty, particularly when their livelihoods are at stake.”