Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Blurred Lines - Texas-BLM Spat Has Complicated History


Tommy Henderson’s Chevy Silverado bobbed as he drove recently over the North Texas pasture he knows so well. It was part of the ranch where his family had grown crops and grazed cattle for more than a century.

The landscape had changed over time. The cottonwood and salt cedar trees weren’t here when his forefathers arrived. “It was just tall prairie,” he said. And the Red River, which runs about a quarter-mile north, has, at times, snaked closer to this spot, its flow changing with Mother Nature’s whims.

The 60-year-old rancher knew exactly when his truck rolled past the invisible boundary that splits what’s still his land and the 140 acres the courts took away — despite the fact that Henderson paid for it.
“We’re on BLM land right now,” Henderson said.

It’s been nearly 30 years since an Oklahoma judge ruled that the land belonged to the federal government, to be overseen by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. The issue is getting attention now as the BLM decides what to do with an area along a 116-mile stretch of the Red River it says it controls. That area includes an indeterminate amount of land that North Texans have long considered theirs. Texas officials, including Gov. Rick Perry and Attorney General Greg Abbott, are speaking out about the case, with some officials talking about federal “seizure” of private property and “overreach.”

Henderson, who is no fan of the BLM, said he’s happy with the attention on the issue. And because of his role in the dispute’s legal history, he has become a point man for those looking to clear up the confusion. He wants more Texas officials to first grasp the two centuries of litigation and changing geography rooted in the dispute. He said they need to know about the Louisiana Purchase, the Adams-Onís Treaty, Buck James, the Langford family and the huge legal ramifications for the different ways a river can move. Only with that understanding can officials try to answer the landowners' new set of questions.

“I think it’s very difficult to fully understand it,” he said. “To know how we got here, we kind of got to know where we’ve been.”

The BLM, the federal government’s trustee for nearly 250 million acres of public land and 700 million acres of mineral rights, is updating its resource management plans in Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas — designating how the land will 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.

Texans, however, have long managed some of that land. They hold deeds to it and have diligently paid taxes on it. The BLM has not fully surveyed the area, so it is not clear how many acres the locals have claimed and how many sat untouched.


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