Does the federal government plan to take control of 90,000 acres of Texas land along the Red River?
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott is the latest state official asking that question in relation to a looming U.S. Bureau of Land Management decision about what to do with a swath of federal and American Indian land in Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas — including the acreage in Texas along a 116-mile stretch of the Red River.
On Tuesday, Abbott sent a letter to Neil Kornze, BLM director, seeking information about the agency’s plans for the land, some of which North Texans have long considered theirs, using it for cattle grazing and growing crops.
“Private landowners in Texas have owned, maintained, and cultivated this land for generations. Despite the long-settled expectations of these hard-working Texans along the Red River, the BLM appears to be threatening their private property rights by claiming ownership over this territory,” wrote Abbott, the Republican candidate for governor. “Yet, the BLM has failed to disclose either its full intentions or the legal justification for its proposed actions. Decisions of this magnitude must not be made inside a bureaucratic black box.”
The BLM, the federal government’s trustee for nearly 250 million acres of public land and 700 million acres of mineral rights, is currently updating resource management plans in Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas — designating how the land will be used for the next 15 to 20 years. The agency has yet to decide whether it will close off parts of the land or make it open to the public. One option would be to let Texans continue having cattle graze on the land, 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.
Paul McGuire, an agency spokesman, said the disputed land has not been fully surveyed, and that it hopes a new survey will clear up the confusion about its ownership.
“It’s been mischaracterized in different forms, as if BLM is coming to seize land or take land in some form,” he said. “That is definitely not the case.”
At issue is whether that plan will include lands which locals have long considered theirs. The BLM, citing a 1924 U.S. Supreme Court opinion and court rulings on two landowner disputes during the 1980s, says the land in question belongs neither to Texas nor Oklahoma — even if locals have bought it from one another and continue to pay taxes on it.
According to the courts, the lands "were at no time held in private ownership," said McGuire. "The BLM was not party to any litigation between the landowners."
The agency’s Oklahoma field office, which coordinates the three-state region, announced plans to form a new resource management plan in July 2013 and held a series of meetings throughout the region before closing a public commenting period on Jan. 31. Frustration has simmered in parts North Texas for months, but state officials have only recently picked up on it. Along with Abbott, state Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, and Tommy Merritt, a former state representative and current GOP candidate for agriculture commissioner, are among those who have questioned the agency’s plan in recent weeks. In a statement released Tuesday, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst called on Abbott to file suit over the issue.
"This issue is of significant importance to the State of Texas and its private property owners," Abbott wrote.
McGuire said the agency is simply carrying out its responsibility to manage land that courts long ago said belongs to the federal government. The BLM will soon release a thorough response to the questions flooding its offices, he added.
Last year, Gov. Rick Perry assembled a five-person Red River Boundary Commission, which is still meeting. But its task is to address a separate set of issues addressing the border along Lake Texoma. That episode involves a water pump, zebra mussel invasion and a 74-year-old map that might be lost forever.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of a spokesman for the Bureau of Land Management. He is Paul McGuire, not McGwire.