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Red River farmers hope Trump administration resolves land dispute

North Texas farmer Tommy Henderson may soon get what he has long hoped for: a resolution for his community's lengthy dispute with the federal government over land along the Red River.

Texas landowner Tommy Henderson speaks to a gathering of politicians, landowners and others at a bridge over the Red River near Byers, Texas, on April 28, 2014.

North Texas farmer Tommy Henderson may soon get what he has long hoped for: a resolution to his community's lengthy dispute with the federal government over land along the Red River.

The debate swirling around how the river has moved along the boundary separating Texas and Oklahoma in recent years isn’t new, but a bill in Congress seeking to clarify the dispute and a new order in Washington have washed the once-dormant issue back to shore.

In 2013, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management claimed sections of a 116-mile stretch of land along the Red River belonged to the federal government. Bureau officials pointed to a 1923 Supreme Court decision that assigned land north of the river to Oklahoma, territory south of that to Texas and patches in between to the federal government.

But farmers and landowners — many who have long paid taxes on the land in question — say the property claimed by the federal government is actually theirs, and some, including Henderson, are expressing some optimism that things will fall in their favor now that Donald Trump is president. Under the Obama administration, they say, the dispute was virtually deadlocked: proposed legislation in Washington attempting to ease the matter died in the face of a veto threat by Obama, and Texas officials likened the situation to a "land grab" by the federal government.

“The Trump administration will definitely have more common sense and be willing to look at it, sit down with us, talk about it and let us convince them that the past administration has been wrong,” Henderson said.

Things in Washington are still transitioning, though, including at the Department of the Interior, the federal agency that oversees the land management bureau. Ryan Zinke, a former Republican congressman from Montana tapped by Trump to head the department, was sworn in last week, but it's unclear when the Trump administration will nominate a new Bureau of Land Management director. 

The bureau referred questions about the land dispute to the U.S. Department of Justice, which declined to comment, citing pending litigation.

Robert Henneke, a lawyer from the Texas Public Policy Foundation representing the state’s landowners in the case, said he hasn’t been in contact with the Trump administration regarding the case. Henneke added he expects the new administration in Washington to “recognize and follow the rule of law and clear precedent that’s existed without dispute” until the controversy started.

The will to resolve the dispute has some momentum on Capitol Hill, too. In February, a proposal calling for a commissioned survey to clarify the boundary between Texas and Oklahoma along the river received its first stamp of approval, passing the House 250 to 171

House Resolution 428, or the Red River Gradient Boundary Survey Act, by U.S. Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, would allow licensed surveyors chosen by both states’ land offices to conduct the survey, using the same methodology established by the Supreme Court in its 1923 decision.

“You can’t shift through this problem if you don’t have a common set of data here,” said U.S. Rep. Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma, who worked with Thornberry on the bill. "This survey will hopefully take care of that," he added while laying out the measure on the House floor last month.

Some opposed to HR 428, such as U.S. Rep. Lace Hastings, D-Florida, questioned why a survey was needed in the first place. “For nearly 100 years, the [bureau] has conducted uncontested surveys,” Hastings said of the Bureau of Land Management, “and now we’re supposed to believe the agency isn’t following proper standard?”

A similar piece of legislation was authored by Thornberry and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, in 2015, but it died in the upper chamber after facing a veto threat from then-President Obama, who said the act sought to undermine federal authority.

And while HR 428 would need the green light from the Senate before it could land on Trump’s desk for a signature, some Texans were quick to applaud the act’s initial passage.

“When it comes to property rights, don’t mess with Texas,” said Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush in a statement last month after the House approved the bill. The same day, Cornyn said, “Today’s vote is a big step forward for Texas families that have owned land along the Red River for generations."

Cornyn is "hopeful about the bill's chances this time around," an aide told The Texas Tribune.

There's also ongoing litigation happening between involved families and the Bureau of Land Management. In 2015, seven families who live along the Red River filed a federal lawsuit against the bureau, accusing the federal agency of an unlawful land grab. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and Bush jumped into legal matters shortly after, with Paxton saying the state wouldn’t “allow the federal government to arbitrarily infringe upon Texas land and undermine the private property rights of our citizens.”

The lawsuit, currently pending in U.S. District Court in Wichita Falls, has a trial set for July.

“I’m hoping in March we can talk to Sen. Cornyn, Sen. [Ted] Cruz, and maybe whoever is in charge of the [Bureau of Land Management] to resolve some of this before it even goes to court,” Henderson said. “We feel like we, the owners along this river, are definitely in the right.” 

Read more:

  • Along a disputed stretch of the Red River, one Clay County farmer got his land back from the federal government. Can his neighbors follow suit
  • Tired of waiting on lawmakers and bureaucrats to clear up their limbo, a group of North Texans has turned to the courts in an effort to reclaim thousands of acres of ranch and farmland along the Texas side of the Red River. 
  • The Texas 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 the Red River. 

Disclosure: The Texas Public Policy Foundation has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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George P. Bush John Cornyn Ken Paxton