The U.S. House has approved legislation aimed at resolving disputes between the federal government and several families over land ownership along the Texas side of the Red River.
The Red River Private Protection Act — pushed by Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Clarendon and Sen. John Cornyn of Texas — calls for new surveys to clear up confusion over a 116-mile strip of the river, whose changing course has long fueled property fights along Texas’ border with Oklahoma.
The 253-177 vote came weeks after seven North Texas families, supported by state and county leaders, filed a federal lawsuit accusing the U.S. Bureau of Land Management of perpetuating an “arbitrary seizure” of thousands of acres of land Texans have long considered theirs.
The measure advanced after a lengthy debate that veered into partisan bickering over access to guns, Washington’s looming government shutdown and other issues unrelated to the Red River’s complicated history. While a threatened White House veto dims its chances of becoming law — assuming it passes the U.S. Senate — Texas leaders nevertheless cheered the bill's passage.
“This is a big victory for the landowners along the Red River and also for property owners everywhere who deserve to know that the federal government cannot come in and take away what they own," Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, who is seeking to intervene in the lawsuit, said in a statement.
The bill would require surveys of the entire disputed stretch and prevent any contested lands from being included in federal resource management plans. One provision could help some Texans buy back land they've long tended.
Though narrowly tailored to the river dispute, Thornberry called the proposal “important for property owners across the country.”
The current federal claim to the land “puts in doubt the property rights of landowners everywhere because it’s very difficult to fight the federal government,” he said on the House floor.
The White House has threatened to veto the bill, saying it undermines federal authority.
Questions have loomed over 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 says its claim comes from a 1923 U.S. Supreme Court decision that delineated the boundaries between Texas and Oklahoma and assigned the federal government the patches in between.
Federal officials have said they understand why Red River dwellers are concerned but that they have a strict responsibility to manage taxpayer resources.
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 the Texans’ property. But the agency has published a rough outline of its claim, which appears to threaten about 170 tracts of otherwise private land.
It does not expect to decide what to do with the land until 2018, leaving Texans in limbo.
For more than a year, Gov. Greg Abbott and other high-profile Texans have called the bureau’s claim a “federal land grab.”
Some U.S. House Democrats on Wednesday instead called Thornberry’s bill a “Texas land grab.”
Rep. Niki Tsongas, a Massachusetts Democrat, said she felt for the Texas landowners but was worried that allowing the Texas General Land Office to survey the border — as the bill stipulates — would undermine federal authority.
But many of the concerns from Democrats were unrelated to the bill itself. Instead, they accused Republicans of using the bill to avoid a debate on gun control and other issues.
“What we’re doing here is a waste of time,” said Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts. “This bill isn’t going anywhere.”
On Tuesday, the White House said the president’s senior advisers would recommend that he veto the bill, should it land on his desk.
“The Administration shares the goal of providing legal certainty to property owners along the Red River, but strongly opposes the approach of voiding or nullifying federal surveys,” a White House release read.
The bureau has said it does not plan to survey the 116-mile strip.