House bill seeks to end dispute over Red River 'land grab'

Sponsors of a House bill passed this week to protect landowners from what they say is a federal land grab expect the Senate to pass the bill and send it to President Trump.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, seeks to prevent the federal government from claiming hundreds of thousands of acres of land -- much of it privately owned -- along the Red River in Texas and Oklahoma. It was crafted in response to complaints from property owners that the government was trying to seize land along a 116-mile stretch of the river.

The Red River has eroded and shifted – up to two miles in some places – over the last 100 years, and dry land where the river once flowed belongs to the government, according to the Bureau of Land Management.

But Thornberry and others disagree, citing a 1923 Supreme Court ruling that sets the Texas-Oklahoma state boundary as following the meandering of the river.

"This bill very simply requires that there be a survery to determine what the federal government owns and what it does not own," Thornberry told Fox News on Friday.

"It does not dispose of any land and it does not change anybody's
rights," Thornberry said.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1923 that the northern half of the river bottom was Oklahoma's and the southern half belonged to the government. 

In 2007, officials from the Bureau of Land Management began surveying the river bottom to define Indian lands. Following their interpretation of the gradient boundary survey method, the BLM extended what it believes to be part of the riverbed, setting the boundary line more than a mile onto dry land into Texas.

A group of landowners -- including Ken Aderholt, whose home lies within disputed territory -- filed suit in 2015 against the Bureau of Land Management and the Department of Interior. Aderholt and others say they’ve rightfully owned and diligently paid taxes on the land for decades.

"The United States' ownership of property is limited to bottom-half of the sandy riverbed outside of Texas," the lawsuit states. "Nonetheless, BLM asserts that its boundary extends well past the riverbed into Texas and, in some instances, more than a mile outside of its lawful territory. In doing so, BLM has seized private property, infringed upon the sovereignty of the local county governments, and interfered with law enforcement’s ability to discharge its duties arising under Texas law.

Thornberry said the tug-of-war has land owners in a "panic" because "they don’t know when or where the federal government may come in and take the land that they’re entitled to and have paid taxes on, some for generations."

The House bill, which was approved 250-171, would commission a survey of the disputed area under a method backed by the Supreme Court.

Thornberry said he's confident the bill will pass in the Senate, despite opposition from Democrats who say the bill could unfairly impact Native American tribes who have mineral rights in the area.

An official from the Bureau of Land Management could not be reached Friday for comment. BLM officials previously said they have no intent to force current landowners from their properties. Instead, they said says landowners can purchase land belonging to the U.S. if it coincides with their deed.

Robert Henneke, a lawyer with the Texas Public Policy Foundation who represents the landowners, said he believes the bill has the momentum it needs to pass in the Senate.

"Throughout this dispute, the Bureau of Land Management has blatantly disregarded both the Texas landowners' private property rights and the plain meaning of the Supreme Court Opinion that defines the boundary," Henneke told Fox News on Friday.

Thornberry and others lawmakers, he said, "will stop the attempted land grab by giving Texas and Oklahoma responsibility to determine the boundary correctly."

Cristina Corbin is a reporter for Follow her on Twitter @CristinaCorbin