State Rep. James Frank has been hearing from constituents since February about goings-on along the Red River: The U.S. Bureau of Land Management, citing a series of court rulings dating to the 1920s, had decided that a 116-mile stretch of land belonged to the federal government.
The roughly 90,000 acres included property long ago deeded to residents who had raised crops and cattle and paid taxes on it.
Questions had been swirling in North Texas since December, when BLM representatives came to discuss updates to its resource management plans in Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas — how the land would be used for the next 15 to 20 years.
So Frank, R-Wichita Falls, and other area lawmakers quietly went to work, first trying to understand two centuries of treaties, litigation and changing geography rooted in the bureau’s claim. They teamed with U.S. Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Clarendon, who had requested information from the agency and was mulling legislative action.
Then came the national headlines.
Amid the bureau’s headline-making standoff with Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy over grazing fees on clearly established public land, which has little in common with the Red River debate, Texas politicos seized on the border angst of state residents. In statements and national television appearances, Gov. Rick Perry, Attorney General Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst were among those who spoke of an imminent takeover of Texas land.
“They sure have jumped ahead on talking points,” Frank said, chuckling. “All of a sudden I’m going, ‘Who are all these people sending out statements?’”
But Frank said he was not put off by the attention, sensing an opportunity to raise awareness.
Abbott, the Republican candidate for governor, talked of a “potential seizure of land” and sent a letter last week to the bureau seeking more information on its claims. Two days later, after an appearance on Fox News in which he mentioned possible litigation, Abbott’s campaign sent an email with this message for the bureau: “Come and take it.”
The attorney general’s office said that Abbott was simply responding to concerns expressed in letters from landowners.
Some statements from Texas officials have included misinterpretations of the border’s history. Abbott, for instance, suggested that a 2000 compact, which clarified the jurisdictional and political boundaries between Texas and Oklahoma, should have nixed the bureau’s claim. The compact, however, does not address property lines. The attorney general’s office blamed any missing facts on the bureau, saying it has “not been forthcoming.”
Tommy Henderson, a Clay County rancher who lost 140 acres when an Oklahoma court ruled in 1984 that the land belonged to the federal government, said that not everyone talking fully grasped the issue. “You can’t understand it until you see it,” he said, adding that he was pleased with the growing attention on the dispute.
Dewhurst, who is in a Republican primary runoff in his bid for re-election, has called the bureau’s plans “an outrageous, illegal act.” Last week, when his campaign announced he would visit the Red River land in question, it said Henderson’s property was “directly threatened” by the agency. But the rancher does not stand to lose any more property.
Andrew Barlow, a campaign spokesman for Dewhurst, acknowledged that the issue was complex. “The key is to see that the impetus behind any of the communications is really coming from the values first,” he said.
The bureau said it would not finalize plans until 2018. “It’s been mischaracterized in different forms, as if B.L.M. is coming to seize land or take land in some form,” said Paul McGuire, a bureau spokesman. “That is definitely not the case.”
Frank, who worries about “huge uncertainties and financial risk” for his constituents as the dispute is sorted out, said he was not surprised by the surge of political interest.
“That’s just stuff that goes on,” he said. “It’s all good.”