RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
For centuries, the Red River has been a line of demarcation. It once marked the boundary between Spain and the United States, later Texas and the U.S. and finally, Oklahoma and Texas. Now, as NPR's Wade Goodwyn reports, that could all change and affect tens of thousands of acres of private land in the process.
WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: Pat Canan is a petroleum engineer, a Texas game warden and a north Texas rancher with about 2,000 acres that abut the Red River. For more than 50 years, his family gazed across the river at their neighbors in Oklahoma.
One day, while investigating his property on his all-terrain vehicle, Canan saw something stuck in the ground, a fence post in the middle of one of his pastures. He stopped and found a little round bronze marker with official looking words stamped in the middle. What was written there was dumbfounding.
PAT CANAN: If you look on it, it says there's a line. And on the south side of the line, it says Texas. And on the north side, it says Oklahoma. Bureau of Land Management.
GOODWYN: We had Oklahoma. I'm standing right here in it.
CANAN: That's Oklahoma. And I'm in Texas. And we're a foot apart, a mile from the river.
GOODWYN: This is going to come as quite a surprise to generations of elementary school geography students. Canan stands amidst massive hundred-year-old oak and cottonwood trees. He can't even smell the Red River from here.
CANAN: So I had to get on the Internet - figure out what all those marks meant on that survey. It was unbelievable that that was actually the boundary between Texas and Oklahoma.
GOODWYN: Canan had no idea the markers were here. But once found, he remembered how they'd come to be. In 2008, surveyors from the Bureau of Land Management rang the intercom at his cattle gate.
CANAN: The BLM showed up and said, we want to survey this river bottom to define Indian lands. So I let them through the gate.
GOODWYN: That was a decision he's come to regret. Historically, the Red River has always been an important border dividing the U.S. from Spain, then Mexico, and eventually Texas from Oklahoma. Just who owned and controlled the river bottom has always been a little more complicated.
In 1923, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the northern half of the Red River bottom was Oklahoma's and the southern half the federal government's. Texas got none of it. The problem for Pat Canan and the other Texas property owners is that after its survey, the BLM has extended what it considers part of its riverbed more than a mile onto dry land into Texas.
Robert Henneke is a lawyer with the Texas Public Policy Foundation and represents Pat Canan, several other affected landowners and the Texas counties involved who are suing the Department of the Interior.
ROBERT HENNEKE: What appears to be happening now is that for the first time in history, the federal government and the Bureau of Land Management are saying that their boundary is not where the river exists today, but that they want to claim their boundary as going back to where the river flowed nearly a hundred years ago.
GOODWYN: The BLM says it's using the Supreme Court's original surveys from the 1920s to locate its current markers. But in places, the markers appear to make little sense. On Pat Canan's property, for example, he says it's been hundreds of years, if not millennia, since the Red River flowed anywhere near the survey markers.
Nevertheless, the BLM claims 1,400 of Canan's 2,000 acres is in the riverbed - therefore, federal property. One of Canan's neighbors has it even worse. The BLM considers their house to be inside its riverbed. The $64 question is - what's going on here? Why is this happening? The Bureau declined NPR's interview request.
But Jesse Juen is the recently retired BLM director who was in charge of the Texas-Oklahoma region. Juen helped direct the survey effort. And he says it's simply part of the ongoing planning process about how to adjudicate the public's land.
JESSE JUEN: Do we want to retain those public lands or dispose of those public lands? And you identify all of that in the planning process.
GOODWYN: The BLM claims what it's actually trying to do is belatedly protect the property rights of the Kiowa, Comanche and Apache. In 1868, these tribes were compensated with small parcels of land along the Oklahoma bank of the Red River.
Because of the BLM's latest survey, the tribes could claim thousands of acres of heretofore private Texas property because it wouldn't be in Texas anymore. Juen explains the agency's motivation is not to wrest away private land, per se, but to safeguard the tribes' and the nation's public interest.
JUEN: I really felt that the agency needed to deal with this and get this into the public's eye so that we could get this resolved once and for all. There would be nothing worse than some issue to come up - and go to court. And then the court turn around and look at agency and say, wait a minute, you knew about this all this time, and you never did anything about it?
GOODWYN: Back on Pat Canan's land, we climb aboard our ATVs and head toward the Red River. Along the way, we stop at another BLM marker that precisely denotes the medial line of the river, the river's exact middle. But don't worry, we're not drowning. We still have another half-mile to ride before we actually get to the water.
We go as far as the machines can take us. Then we walk. Finally, we're there. It's been a very wet spring, and the river is bursting - a color of deep ocher, chock-full of Oklahoma red clay. We stand on the lip, resting, taking it all in.
CANAN: This is where Texas begins - right here at this bank, not where the BLM has it a mile away.
GOODWYN: Standing here, it's tempting to laugh. Of course the riverbank is here. And the middle of the river is out there in the fast flowing water. But any amusement would just be salt in Pat Canan's wounds.
In its 1923 ruling, the Supreme Court wrote, the boundary of Texas is on and along the southern bank at the mean level of the water. The ruling continued optimistically. It is settled beyond the possibility of dispute that when the bed and water channel are changed by the natural and gradual processes of erosion, the boundaries follow the course of the stream.
But it turns out a dispute is not only not beyond possible. It's now in federal court in Wichita Falls. Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.