Settlement ends Red River land dispute

Nov 09, 2017
Ana Ramirez
Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush joined a lawsuit challenging federal plans to redraw land boundaries along the Red River. ANA RAMIREZ / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

A settlement has ended a long-running land dispute over a U.S. government agency’s plans to redraw the Red River’s boundary in three counties along the Texas-Oklahoma border.

Landowners and state officials had sued the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, arguing that plans to redraw boundary lines along 116 miles of the Red River would allow the federal government to improperly seize more than 90,000 acres of privately owned land and 113 acres with mineral rights managed by the state General Land Office.

Under the settlement, signed Wednesday by U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor of Fort Worth, the federal agency dropped its claims to the Texas land and acknowledged that private property extends to the south bank of the river, even as it moves due to erosion and other natural factors.

The dispute arose in the late 2000s when the agency claimed that federally owned land in Oklahoma extended to the banks of the Red River as it existed in 1923, when the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision settling a boundary dispute between Oklahoma and Texas.

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Thanks to the shifting path of the river over time, the federal claim in Clay, Wichita and Wilbarger counties extended more than a mile in some areas, swallowing the family home of a third-generation rancher and affecting about 150 landowners, said Robert Henneke, a lawyer for county officials and several landowners in the disputed area.

Henneke said Thursday that the property owners were gratified and relieved by the settlement.

“Our clients’ homes and family lands are safe from seizure by the federal government and protected from this type of land grab happening in the future,” said Henneke, general counsel of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank that led the legal challenge. “Now, our clients, their families and neighbors can be at peace again within their homes.”

Officials in the three counties also were happy to resolve a dispute that clouded taxation and service issues in the disputed areas, he said.

Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, who joined the lawsuit because his agency manages mineral rights in the disputed area that provide money for Texas school districts, credited Trump administration officials for reversing policies set in motion by the Obama administration.

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“Texas families owned and worked the land at the heart of this matter for generations, until the unfair attempt to seize it,” Bush said. “Texans have always defended our land and our rights. At the end of the day, the saying remains true: Don’t mess with Texas.”

Under the settlement, the Bureau of Land Management:

• Canceled surveys that had placed federal markers onto private property claiming it as government land.

• Renounced a 2014 map that listed the disputed territory as federal land in the three counties.

• Agreed that the northern boundary of private property in Texas will extend to the river’s edge, even as the Red River moves over time.

“That will protect all landowners from this point forward,” Henneke said.