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Red River

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BLM/Red River Issue Summary 

Many of you have expressed concern about the potential for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to claim Texas land along the Red River as public domain.

The BLM is in the process of updating its Resource Management Plan (RMP) for lands managed by the BLM, which includes a 116 mile stretch of the Red River on the border between Texas and Oklahoma in Wilbarger, Wichita, and Clay counties.  

At a public meeting in Wichita Falls, Texas, in 2013, the BLM stated there is an estimated 90,000 acres of land along the 116 mile stretch of the Red River that may be considered public domain.  Although this estimate has been cut, there was immediate concern that the federal government was claiming to own some of the land to which private individuals had deeds. 

The entire section of the river has never been surveyed by the BLM, and the portions that the agency most recently surveyed stray widely from the accepted gradient boundary survey method established by the Supreme Court in the 1920s.  

In a March 29, 2017, letter, the BLM suspended the incorrect spot surveys due to the use of incorrect surveying methodology.  In November 2017, a settlement agreement was reached in a lawsuit brought by Texas landowners, which stipulated that the northern boundary of private property along the Red River between Texas and Oklahoma is governed by the opinion of the Supreme Court in Oklahoma v. Texas, which established the gradient boundary as the ownership boundary.  However, the settlement agreement does not resolve the geographic location of the boundary, but requires the BLM to apply the principles originally established in Oklahoma v. Texas in preparing any future survey or resurvey of the Red River.

Without identifying the specific boundary, landowners along the river are left with the uncertainty of whether the land that they have held titles to and have paid taxes on, in some cases for generations, will remain in their families or be subject to federal ownership.  This uncertainty clouds the title and threatens the value of privately owned land.  

Legislative Action 

Issue: In 2013, the BLM held public meetings that indicated there is an estimated 90,000 acres of land along the 116-mile stretch of the Red River that may be considered public domain, which immediately created concern that the federal government was claiming to own land to which private individuals had deeds and on which they had paid taxes for generations.

113th Congress (2013-2014)

  • Introduction: On June 26, 2014, Congressman Thornberry introduced H.R. 4979 and Senator Cornyn introduced S. 2537, the “Red River Private Property Protection Act.”
  • Committee Action: H.R. 4979 – The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands held a legislative hearing on H.R. 4979 on July 29, 2014.  On December 22, 2014, the Committee amended the bill and reported it to the full House.
  • Appropriation Language Signed into Law: Language included in FY2015 Consolidated Appropriations Bill, H.R. 83, directed BLM to defer land use planning until proper surveys completed. H.R. 83 was signed into law on December 16, 2014.

114th Congress (2015-2016)

  • Introduction: On April 30, 2015, Congressman Thornberry introduced H.R. 2130 and Senator Cornyn introduced S. 1153, the “Red River Private Property Protection Act.”
  • House Passage: H.R. 2130 passed the House on December 9, 2015. 
  • Introduction: On December 15, 2016, Congressman Thornberry introduced a modified bill as H.R. 6479, the “Red River Gradient Boundary Survey Act.”

115th Congress (2017-2018)

  • Introduction: On January 10, 2017, Congressman Thornberry introduced H.R. 428 and Senator Cornyn introduced S.90, the “Red River Gradient Boundary Survey Act.”
  • House Passage: H.R. 428 passed the House on February 14, 2017. 
  • Committee Action: S. 90 – Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources held legislative hearing on July 26, 2017, and reported bill to Senate on November 29, 2018.
  • Survey Funding Signed into Law: $1 million allocated to conduct the Red River survey included in H.R. 1625, the Consolidated Appropriations Act for FY2018, which was signed into law on March 23, 2018.

116th Congress (2019)

  • Introduction: On January 8, 2019, Congressman Thornberry introduced H.R. 346 and Senator Cornyn introduced S.41, the “Red River Gradient Boundary Survey Act.”
  • Appropriation Language Signed into Law: Language included in FY2019 Consolidated Appropriations Act, H.J.Res. 31, which was signed into law on February 15, 2019, directs the BLM to contract with independent, third-party surveyors chosen by the states and the Tribes. 
  • Signed Into Law: “Red River Gradient Boundary Survey Act” included in S. 47, the lands package that passed the Senate on February 12, 2019, and passed the House on February 26, 2019, and is now being sent to the President for signature.

Summary of H.R. 346 - Red River Gradient Boundary Survey Act

  • Under current law, the BLM has the authority to survey the contested area using BLM surveyors without any input from the states.
  • This legislation requires the BLM to use independent third-party surveyors chosen in consultation with the states and the Tribes.
  • BLM can then only implement the completed survey or portions of the survey that have the written approval of the states and the Tribes, which gives Texas full veto authority to protect private property rights and ensure an accurate survey.

Questions or Comments

By providing legal certainty to landowners, the Red River Gradient Boundary Survey Act seeks to end questions about the federal government's ownership of disputed land along the Red River.

Please feel free to email me your thoughts and concerns here.  I always appreciate hearing from you. 

 
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