CLAY COUNTY — A stretch of land a stone’s throw from the Oklahoma state line became a classroom Monday, as a couple of ranchers used a poster board slideshow to show dozens of people — including several Texas officials and lawmakers — how centuries of treaties, lawsuits and pacts have dictated land ownership rights in the area.
“I’ve lived this thing,” Tommy Henderson, who led the presentation on a parched parcel of grass, steps from the banks of the dry Red River, told the crowd. The Wichita Falls resident lost 140 acres of his land to the Bureau of Land Management in a 1980s court battle. “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 help them if you can.”
The BLM, the federal government’s trustee for nearly 250 million acres of public land, is updating its resource management plans in Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. The area includes about 90,000 acres along a 116-mile stretch of the Red River that the agency considers public land, citing court rulings. But some of that land has been managed by Texans who hold deeds for that property and have regularly paid taxes on the land. The BLM has not fully surveyed the area for the plan and has made no decisions on what it will do.
Paul McGuire, a BLM spokesman, attended the gathering to answer what questions he could about the agency's plan, though he did not make a formal statement.
After Henderson spent more than 20 minutes flipping through poster boards detailing the history of the land's ownership dating to 1803, as well as corresponding drawings of the river to show who owned what, lawmakers took turns at the microphone to address the current dispute.
“You just don’t come to town and say, ‘I deem this my land.’ It ain’t that simple,” Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson said. “Nothing about this is simple, unfortunately.”
Patterson said his legal team is looking into past litigation, patents and titles involving the land.
“There’s going to be a long, tough fight between now and whatever the resolution is,” Patterson said.
At the turn of the century, Congress ratified the Red River Boundary Compact, which established the Texas-Oklahoma boundary as the vegetation line along the south bank of the Red River. That decision did not, however, impact property lines, and earlier decisions by Oklahoma courts had ruled before that the land in question was not part of Texas.
“We got it right in 2000,” said Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who was land commissioner at the time and worked on the pact that set those boundary lines. “As far as I’m concerned and, I believe, the state of Texas is concerned, we’re not going to let some faceless bureaucrat in the BLM deem that this land is theirs without a very, very careful survey on the ground.”
The BLM's draft plan is due within two years. At the earliest, it says it will finalize the plan by 2018. Landowners are able to use the land in the interim, but many are left to question how to proceed.
“We need a resolution in a few weeks to a few months so that these landowners can get on with their lives, run their businesses and continue to pay taxes that run our schools,” said state Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, whose district includes two of the four counties represented in the 116-mile stretch.
State Reps. Debbie Riddle, R-Tomball; Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford; Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth; David Simpson, R-Longview; and James Frank, R-Wichita Falls, were also among the lawmakers in attendance for Henderson’s “low-tech PowerPoint presentation.”
State Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, said that while he’s well-versed on the issue, he realized after Henderson’s lesson that “there’s a lot about this I didn’t know. I was getting educated.”
Estes, too, cited the efforts underway and vowed to figure it out well before 2018. “We’re sorry for a lot of the problems you’ve had to go through, but we’re Texans and we’re going to stick together and we’re going to figure it out,” he said.