After a two-month lag, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has responded to Greg Abbott’s questions about the federal government's claim to a disputed strip of land along the Red River.
The Texas attorney general was not impressed with the bureau's answers.
“The BLM's recent letter fails to answer the questions that I and many Texans have about the BLM’s seeming land grab along the Red River,” Abbott said in a statement emailed to The Texas Tribune. “The BLM’s inadequate response will force Texas to pursue other options to obtain the needed information — including litigation if needed.”
Neil Kornze, the bureau’s director, signed the June 19 letter to Abbott. In it he discussed the bureau’s still-vague plans for the roughly 90,000 Red River acres – some of which were long ago deeded to Texans who have raised crops and cattle and paid taxes on them – and how the land fits into the bureau’s plans to update its resource management plans for federal land in Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.
Confusion about who owns the land is rooted in two centuries of litigation and the river's ever-changing path. The story made national headlines in April when Abbott — backed by Gov. Rick Perry and a host of Texas Republicans — disputed the bureau’s legal interpretation of its ownership of the land and challenged the federal government to “come and take it.”
Abbott, the Republican candidate for governor, had fired off a litany of questions to the bureau, including those related to its long-winding process for determining what it will do with the land, how it will treat Texans who have managed the land and the bureau’s legal analysis of the dispute. Abbott also asked the bureau to “delineate with specificity” the amount of Texas territory that would be affected.
The bureau’s response focused solely on the questions about its bureaucratic process and its legal claim to the land, which is rooted in a 1920s U.S. Supreme Court ruling on a clash between Texas and Oklahoma. The letter presented little, if any, information not already reported in the media.
“We have, through the years, had a good relationship with Texas, and I would like to reiterate the BLM’s commitment to maintaining these relationships with the citizens, industry and other interested groups,” the letter said.
The bureau did not address the key question of the precise borders of the federal government’s claim. It has not fully surveyed the area, so it is not clear how many acres the locals have managed and how many have sat largely untouched.
“It is still unclear what area along the Red River the BLM is attempting to lay claim to, under what authority and how the BLM intends to treat the Texans who have for generations considered the land private property,” Abbott said in his statement.
The bureau's draft resource management plan is due within two years. At the earliest, it says it will finalize the plan by 2018. Meanwhile, locals are still receiving tax estimates on the disputed land — regardless of whether they technically own it.
The BLM has not decided whether it will close off parts of the land or make it open to the public. One option would be to let Texans continue using it, though they would then be subject to federal regulations. Another option would be to sell it. Or Congress could tell the agency to do something else with the land.