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George P. Bush Wades into Red River Fight with Feds

The Texas land commissioner on Tuesday asked to joined seven North Texas families in a federal lawsuit that accuses the U.S. Bureau of Land Management of perpetuating an “arbitrary seizure” of land along the Red River.

Paul McGuire, with the federal Bureau of Land Management, speaks with landowners in Clay County on April 28, 2014.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with additional reaction.

George P. Bush is wading into a battle with the federal government over land along the Texas side of the Red River.

The land commissioner on Tuesday asked to join seven North Texas families in a federal lawsuit that accuses the U.S. Bureau of Land Management of perpetuating an “arbitrary seizure” of land along a 116-mile strip of the river, whose changing course has fueled a century’s worth of property disputes along the state’s border with Oklahoma.

Bush is the latest big-name Republican seeking standing in the case, filed last month in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas. Attorney General Ken Paxton has also asked to join, and lawyers from the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the state’s most influential conservative think tank, are representing the families at no cost.

Wichita, Clay and Wilbarger counties have also signed onto the suit, along with Clay County Sheriff Kenneth Lemons Jr.

Bush argues the federal bureau is threatening mineral rights managed by his General Land Office. The Texas agency initially owned the rights to about 78 acres along the river in Wilbarger County, which expanded to about 113 acres due to the river’s gradual move northward, according to court filings. The federal government is claiming ownership of about 35 of those acres, Bush argues.

Royalties from any future development of those minerals would flow to the state’s Permanent School Fund, which provides money for state schools.

No one has drilled for oil or gas on the disputed stretch of land, which represents just a sliver of the 13 million acres of mineral rights the land office manages statewide. But Bush argues that the Obama administration's plans — despite their unique circumstances — threaten Texas’ entire oil and gas portfolio.

“We had no other option,” he said in an interview. “From our standpoint, it’s a dangerous slippery slope.” 

The Bureau of Land Management, which oversees millions of acres of public land and minerals, has said it "remains committed to working with" the Red River community through its planning process.

"We share the interest of all parties in clarifying ownership and identifying appropriate management alternatives," spokesman Paul McGuire said last month.

The lawsuit came about 19 months after the dispute first grabbed national headlines and sparked fiery comments from Texas leaders, including Gov. Greg Abbott, who says he supports landowners in their fight. 

Questions have swirled near the stretch of the river since December 2013, when bureau representatives arrived in North Texas to discuss updates to its resource management plans in Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas — specifically how the land would be used for the next 15 to 20 years.

The area includes about 90,000 acres along the Red River that the agency considers public land, with perhaps a third of it on the Texas side.

The agency has said its claim comes from a 1923 U.S. Supreme Court decision that delineated the boundaries between Texas and Oklahoma and assigned the feds the patches in between.

But Texans have long managed swaths of that area. They hold deeds to the land and have diligently paid their local taxes. The bureau has not fully surveyed the area, so it is not clear precisely where the public boundary lines intersect with private lands.

Bush and other Texas officials accuse the feds of poorly articulating their claim to the river stretch. The land office used a bureau map published in June 2014 to estimate that 35 of its mineral acres were threatened.

The federal bureau plans to finalize the management scheme by 2018 at the earliest, frustrating residents who want a resolution now.

It has not decided whether it will close off parts of the land or make it open to the public. But since few stretches are accessible without crossing onto indisputable private property, the most likely option would involve selling off the land.

Federal officials have said they understand why Red River dwellers are concerned, but they have a strict responsibility to manage taxpayer resources — in this case, the land. 

Meanwhile, Texans in Congress are trying hammer out a solution, led by U.S. Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Clarendon, and Sen. John Cornyn.

Their proposal, which cleared a House committee in September, would require surveys of the entire disputed stretch and prevent any contested lands from being included in the federal resource management plan, among other provisions.

Bush called a fix in Washington a “more proactive” way to lift the cloud over the disputed land but said Texas wasn’t willing to wait any longer. 

“We’re not leaving it to chance, and we’re making clear our intent to resolve it once and for all,” he said.

Disclosure: The Texas Public Policy Foundation is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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