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.