In the battle for the ever-changing boundaries of North Texas, Clay and Wichita County farmers and ranchers, and some of the state’s top Republican lawmakers, drew a line in the sand Monday as landowners along a 116-mile stretch of the Red River ready themselves for a fight with the federal government.
The rally, organized by the political arm of the Texas Farm Bureau and hosted by Clay County farmer Tommy Henderson, was held near the banks of the Red River, at the Waurika Bridge north of Byers. The event was attended by local and state officials, including Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson.
The Bureau of Land Management claims a swath of land beginning at the 98th meridian, a designated point near Ringgold and stretching west to the confluence of the North Fork of the Red River in Wilbarger County is public domain. Landowners, on the other hand, contend that the lands were patented to early settlers by the State of Texas.
Approximately 90,000 acres are in question, which would reach an average of 1.2 miles from the middle of where the river now runs south to the high cut bank, improved lands that are deeded and for which property taxes have been paid.
The BLM maintains that this is not a “land grab” because the federal government already owns the land. The discrepancy between landowners, the State of Texas and the BLM lies in how much land belongs to the government.
“Nobody suggests that there is no federal land ownership out there, but what we do dispute is where that line exists,” Patterson told The Pioneer Sentinel after Monday’s presentation. “The BLM says they own because the movement of the river was due to evulsion, which does not change boundaries. We say, ‘Well, if you’re going to say that, you’ve got to prove it.”
Henderson, who lost 140 acres to the BLM in 1985 as the result of a lawsuit, has become the unofficial spokesperson for landowners affected by any decisions made by the BLM.
“My land has been gone 30 years. I don’t really expect to get it back. But, it would sure be nice,” said Henderson during a presentation that lasted about 30 minutes. “I’m here with the other farmers and ranchers up and down this river because when your neighbor is in trouble and you can help him, you need to be willing to bale in and help him out.”
During his speech, Henderson reviewed the history of border disputes, treaties and court decision dating back to the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, how movement of the river affects property lines through accretion, avulsion and erosion.
Two representatives from the BLM’s Oklahoma field office were also on hand at the invitation of Dewhurst. Although they declined to speak to the crowd as a whole, they were peppered with questions and light debate for more than an hour afterward.
“We’re in a planning process. We have to do this about once a generation, about every 20 years,” said Richard Fields, an assistant field manager of multiple resources for the BLM based in Moore, Okla. “The last plan, from the ‘90s was not very good because (movement of) the river was unsettled.”
The planning process for the Red River is part of a larger project by the BLM that reaches federal lands as far north as Kansas and south to the Rio Grande.
“We’re not doing just the Red River. We’re doing from Kansas to the Mexican border of federal oil and gas interests, Indian mineral interests and surface areas were we have an interest,” said Fields.
The BLM is just beginning the phase of developing a resource management plan and environmental impact study, which could take as long as five years and could result in managing the land for recreational use, environmental protection or closure of the land to the public.
The BLM could also decide to dispose of the land, turning it over to property owners who already claim deeds to the parcels, an option which State Rep. James Frank favored while speaking with BLM spokesperson Jason McGuire.
“There’s the answer,” said Frank, “let’s do that right now.”
Patterson does not believe surveys conducted by the BLM will provide sufficient evidence to claim federal ownership of lands already claimed by farmers and ranchers. The land commissioner said that a “really good” survey would be required for the questioned properties to fall under jurisdiction of the BLM.
“At the end of the day, when we have a survey, I’m pretty sure that it ain’t going to be 90,000 acres, if any acreage,” said Patterson. “I think there’s a really good chance under the law, under the survey, and if we go to the courts, if the State of Texas and the Texas General Land Office go to court, that we can stop this from being anything else.”