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Is The Bureau Of Land Management Attempting A Land Grab On The Red River?

The short answer: Maybe, but it’s not likely to succeed.

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Land disputes between private citizens and the federal government—represented by the Bureau of Land Management—have been a hot topic since the standoff at Cliven Bundy’s ranch in Nevada last year. With the Bundy Ranch incident still fresh in the minds of conservatives who considered the dispute a land grab on the part of the Bureau of Land Management, reports out of Texas—along the Oklahoma border at the Red River—have been circulating for the past year and change.

Those reports have been receiving renewed attention this week, as rancher Ken Aderholt of Harrold took to the media to talk once again about what he describes as another attempted land grab from the BLM:

[H]is land could soon be in the hands of the Bureau of Land Management. Aderholt, like many other Red River property owners, has been told that the land his family has owned for over 70 years is no longer his.

“The BLM is saying we should have never had a deed to it. That Texas should have never produced that deed,” Aderholt said.[…]

According to the Bureau of Land Management, the true boundary is about half a mile inland, or roughly 600 of Aderholt’s 1,250 acres.

Aderholt’s house is located inside the 600 acres the BLM wants to claim. While he’s been notified the land could be taken, he has not been told what the U.S. government plans to do with it.

Conservative websites such as Infowars, WorldNetDaily, and TheBlaze have all seized upon Aderholt’s story in the past few days, calling up the showdown at Bundy’s ranch and rallying their readers against overreach on the part of the federal government. So what’s happening here?

What is the Bureau of Land Management claiming?

The subject of dispute is a 116-mile stretch of land along the Red River. Basically, the BLM claims that the land—which many ranchers and property owners, including Aderholt, hold deeds on—are actually public lands, because the river’s course has changed. The BLM claims that the land actually hasn’t been private since a Supreme Court case in the 1920’s established what part of the Red River belongs to the public, but the people who own the deeds have been paying taxes on that property in that time.

What do the deed holders say? 

Not a huge surprise, but they don’t buy it. Some, like Aderholt, have built homes on the land that the BLM says belongs to the public, and many of them use the land for ranching, so it’s not just the principle of the matter—people’s livelihoods are at stake here. So they’re angry, and they have been since the issue came up last year. It may be true that a Supreme Court case nearly a hundred years ago explained what’s public land and what’s private land along the Red River, but those borders have never clearly defined, which has deed holders suspicious about why the BLM is only now claiming that it’s land that they’ve been using.

So whose land is it?

That’s the big question here. If the river’s course changed gradually, through erosion, the Bureau of Land Management has a case here. It’s an unpopular school of thought if you hold the deed, but, as former Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson put it last year, “When rivers move, boundaries change. That’s accepted law, no one disputes that.”

The issue here, though, is whether the Red River’s banks have moved through gradual erosion, or whether it was a process called avulsion, where the river’s banks change suddenly because of a flood or another catastrophic event. When that’s the cause of the change, the land rights aren’t affected. Patterson told Breitbart last year that “the BLM always assumes that it’s avulsive when it works to their advantage, and that it’s erosion when it works to their advantage.” Patterson argues that, if the Bureau of Land Management wants that land, they’ll have to prove that it was erosion that changed the course of the river.

The laws at work here are old—dating back to the Louisiana Purchase—and complicated. It’s hard to know exactly whose land it is, but it’s also likely that the ownership issue here fairly blindsided the deed holders. In the Bundy Ranch standoff, sympathies were pretty easy to assign along party lines—part of Bundy’s argument for why the land in question was his was that he didn’t “recognize the federal government as even existing,” which appealed to those who share that belief, but alienated those who considered Bundy’s claims to the land dubious at best. Deed holders like Aderholt, on the other hand, require less worldview-identification to sympathize with. That’s important here, as the case proceeds to move through the court of public opinion.

Is anybody doing anything about this?

Oh, yeah. Texas being Texas, people at all levels of government in the state have expressed their support for the deed holders on the Red River and their opposition to the Bureau of Land Management. When the story broke last year, everyone from Rick Perry to Ted Cruz to Patterson to then-Attorney General Greg Abbott insisted that the federal government wasn’t going to come in and take Texans’ land with out a fight. Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Clarendon) introduced legislation last summer that would A) require the BLM conduct a survey to prove its case within a two-year timespan, with wide appeal powers for deed holders, and B) force the BLM to then sell the land it claims ownership of to the deed holders at “no less than market value.” That bill made it out of committee in September, which is a big step toward passage.

And with Aderholt in the news, Governor Abbott sent a letter to the BLM on Friday afternoon in which he called the Bureau’s actions “an illegal taking,” and accused them of “minimiz[ing] the landowners’ grave and legitimate concerns” about ownership. Neither of which means that this couldn’t happen, but which at least suggest that, if the Bureau of Land Management is going to claim the land, they’re going to have an uphill battle.

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  • canuck

    BLM is like the EPA….it needs to be defunded and the majority of its holding returned to the states with any federal money currnently used to manage it. Let them continue to manage National Parks, but monuments like the ones that Clinton declared in Utah to protect the interests of Indonesian coal need to be returned to the States as well.

  • Ruckus_Tom

    With the Bundy Ranch incident still fresh in the minds of conservatives ….

    Let’s be sure and get the “conservative, Tea Party, Republicans” in there in the second sentence why don’t we Mr. Solomon? You forgot to include “white male”.

    Of course this land grab is occurring when there’s a black defecrat president, but we won’t mention that.

    It’s only the mean ole “conservative” land owners complaining about federal land grabs who are the bad guys.

  • will_ford

    the feds have gotten WAY TO BIG for their breeches. They need to be reined in! LIKE DE-FUNDED & DIS-MANTELED

  • Gwen Elaine Dallas

    The BLM, as part of the federal government, represents the entirety of the nation. If they think they have a legitimate claim to the land, then there are 310 million people who are counting on them to get what belongs to the people of the United States.

    With that said, of course ranchers like Mr. Aderholt and our Texas government are right to be angry about this as well. It seems our ranchers are putting the land to good economic use and contributing to society. The BLM needs to have a really good case if it’s going to rock the boat.

    People need to settle down here. If the BLM has a case for avulsion, it ought to be able to point to a particular event or series of events where the river’s course suddenly changed. If they can do that, they then need to try to settle the claim and get off the ranchers backs. I like the idea in Mac Thornberry’s bill — the BLM needs to “put up or shut up” and if they can prove anything, then they need to sell the land back to the private land owners at a fair price.

    A lot of the comments from the Texas side have just been irresponsible. We don’t need to go to war against the federal government here — in their own roundabout way they are trying to fight for our interests as Americans. The last thing we need are nutballs like the Oath Keepers showing up, like they did in Nevada, with that land-thief Cliven Bundy…

    • jammerjim

      Hush up, you, with your common sense and reasonably argued points that are fair-minded to both sides. We’ve got anti-government outrage to gin up here!

    • Bob Marley

      If the BLM can prove it’s their land, they need to offer to sell it back at a fair price, MINUS all the taxes that have been paid on it over the years and the original purchase price. It sounds like the taxes were paid to Texas, so Texas needs to be accountable as well and cover that. Also, as I understand it, Oath Keepers only show up when there is a reasonable threat to the parties involved.

  • John Brown

    This sounds like a case that the State of Texas and Mexico
    have been disputing for decades. The river changed its course and the boundary
    change. Many people on the Bolivar pensile have lost land due to the shifting standouts.
    In this case the 1920 Supreme court ruling
    has been ignored and The State of Texas were wrong in issuing title and
    accepting taxes for government land. I would imagen that ALL the land survey’s
    and geological studies will be well scrutinized.

    It is wrong to clime that this is a Obama Administration
    land grab. This is a long ongoing dispute that has floated to the surface.

  • Very incomplete reporting. Consider contacting BLM for input.

  • Tx Grandma

    Gwen Ellen Dallas, how would you feel if your family home of almost 100 years was going to be taken because the federal government found out that half of it belonged to them. Don’t worry that you will only lose the garage, living room and kitchen. And it only took them 100 years to decide it was theirs. Oh, the land only changed forty years ago, so it took them a while to figure it out! Sorry!? I’m sure you would hand it over because you are a good citizen and it would be for the common good! Yea, right!