April 29, 2014

Red River dispute is old and complex

A serious property issue has become a political soundbite.

That some Texas leaders have used the latest chapter in a long-running dispute involving property along the Texas-Oklahoma border as an opportunity to lash out at a “land-grabbing” federal government is predictable.

But as Tommy Henderson, a North Texas rancher with an intimate knowledge of the controversy told the Texas Tribune, “… they don’t truly, totally understand everything that’s happening and what has happened.”

That’s a disappointment but not a surprise, given the dispute’s complex history.

Ninety years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court settled a boundary dispute between Texas and Oklahoma, ruling that Oklahoma controlled all lands north of the Red River’s medial line (roughly the center of the cut river banks), and Texas controlled land below the river’s south bank.

Left to the jurisdiction of the federal government were lands occupying the “gap” between the medial line and the Texas border.

The problem is that the river’s south bank shifts almost daily, leading to obvious legal challenges like the one that cost Henderson 140 acres of his property in 1983, when an Oklahoma judge declared it public land.

The judge in that case determined the river had moved through avulsion, meaning even though the river changed, the border didn’t.

Given the Red River’s “unique situation,” in 2000, the U.S. Congress ratified an agreement that re-set the political border as the vegetation line along the river’s south bank.

And last year, the Bureau of Land Management, the federal agency that oversees public lands, announced it would update its Resource Management Plan in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas, citing the property lines set by the Oklahoma court to measure its territory, including some 90,000 acres along the Red River.

That’s when local landowners, many of whom have managed and paid taxes on some of that land, started to get anxious anew.

This dispute has confused and frustrated generations of landowners whose livelihoods depend upon their property.

They deserve clarity and meaningful resolution.

But those outcomes probably won’t be provided by a bevy of politicians who see the Red River as an opportunity for campaign red meat.

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