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.”