In our continuing series on the federal government’s seizure of Texas land along the Red River, I spoke with Davey Edwards. Edwards is a Texas state-licensed professional land surveyor, as well as a certified federal surveyor for the United States bureau of land management. He holds a M.S. in geospatial survey engineering and also a Ph.D. in geosciences with a focus on river morphology and how it relates to riparian boundaries, particularly relating to interstate and international boundary lines. In short, he is an expert. Additionally, Edwards is a candidate for Commissioner of the Texas General Land Office (GLO). (To read part one featuring our interview with Attorney Robert Henneke, click here.)
Thorson: How did you get involved with the controversy on the Red River?
Edwards: Back in 2010, I was hired to survey an avulsion [a sudden cutting off of land by flood, currents, or change in course of a body of water] along the Red River. And my client, who had land in Texas, his land was avulsed to the state of Oklahoma. And of course, he hired me to do the survey, and that was my case study for my dissertation research. And through that, a colleague of mine, who was a survey director at the General Land Office under Jerry Patterson’s administration, knew of my research. And it was about the time that the bureau of land management was making their claims to properties that it would indicate that they were further south from what they should have been. So, the survey director called me in to talk with Jerry Patterson and the legal department of the General Land Office about my research and how maybe I could help them better understand what the issues were. And through that, and through working with Jerry Patterson, working with his administration, I got in touch with Congressman Thornberry, who is working in Washington creating a bill to protect the private property owners of Texas and also push that through Congress. And he asked me to come and talk with specific congressmen, congresswomen, and senators about the issue.
Thorson: What is the status of that bill?
Edwards: Well, the bill passed through Congress with an amendment. The amendment was from Congressman Cole of Oklahoma, [who] represented the district where the claims were being made. And basically, his amendment was to protect the interests of the Indian tribes along that boundary. And from what I understand, what I know right now, It’s kind of stalled out in the Senate; Senate has more important things on their plate than to mess with this. And seeing that, the Bureau of Land Management finally admitted that they were using improper methods to determine the gradient boundary along the Red River. I think what their thoughts are is that it’s going to eventually kind of work its way out without having to push it through. That’s my theory, anyway.
Thorson: Do you believe that the land taken from private Texas citizens and out of the jurisdiction of Texas will be restored?
Edwards: Yeah. I think that the claims will probably dissipate. There’s still a lawsuit. And you talked with Robert Hennekey, [to] my understanding. So, there’s still the lawsuit that’s at hand, because even though the bureau of land management had cancelled all their surveys along the Red River, they didn’t necessarily accept that Texas was appropriately using the gradient boundary method either. So, the lawsuit’s still out there, but with that cancellation, with the new [BLM] administration, which is [under Ryan] Zinke, who is now the Secretary of the Interior for the United States, and with Trump being the president, the thought is that if the bill did get passed to protect the private owners and to restore all title to the landowners, back to the counties along [the Texas] side, that it’ll get approved through President Trump. [Whereas] under Obama, he stated that he would veto the bill if it ever passed [the] Senate. So now we’ve got a new administration, so my thought is that it will probably work its way out without any issues. But, you never know. With the court systems and everything like that, you just never know.
Thorson: What is your opinion of the government’s handling of this?
Edwards: Back in 1923, you had a Supreme Court decision between Oklahoma and Texas. Of course, you know the United State intervened in that lawsuit because they had interests in the middle of the river to the South bank of the river. And in that determination, the court appointed two commissioners: one to represent the federal government, one to represent the state of Texas; that was Cols. [Arthur] Stiles and Arthur Kidder. Now, both of those agreed to a proper method of applying the boundary along the gradient boundary, and that was to be at or near where the waters would run. Now, the [current disputed federal] claims that were being made were anywhere from pretty close to the water’s edge to all the way to about two miles from the water’s edge; it made no sense how they were applying the method. But, they were also moving the state jurisdiction line to the boundary that they were calling the gradient boundary, and it was clear in the 2007 Red River Compact that [the boundary] was going to be at the vegetation line, that separated aquatic vegetation from upland vegetation. And so, they had those two methods incorrect. Now, [in] the fall of 2014, a colleague of mine and I attended a workshop that the Bureau of Land Management was putting on in Fort Worth. And of course, we had some of the landowners there like Tommy Henderson and [Kenneth] Aderholt, those guys that are in the lawsuit. Now, what was being said, what they wanted to understand was what would be the best use of this federal land that they have along the Red River. And everything was pointing towards exploration, in particular oil and gas exploration. And of course, they were looking at it environmentally, being safe, and they were talking about how the people who are occupying this land, who thinks it was theirs, could use it, you know, still, maybe lease it from the federal government. And so, what it really kind of amounted to, what it really was looking like, was, for lack of better words, a land-grab. And we’re talking from the 98th degree parallel to the clear fork of the Red River; that’s about a 116-mile stretch, and there was a potential of about 90,000 acres that was involved in this. Now, they only had four surveys done that just didn’t equal 90,000 acres; It was just four surveys that they applied over the last decade. But, the issue was out there, so that’s what they were saying.
Thorson: The government claimed that the river had meander over the past 100 years, but you’re stating that this decision to seize this land was based on only ten years of surveys?
Edwards: Yeah. Of course, [if] you go back to the 1819 Adams administration, in that treaty between the United States and Spain, it was defined not with exact wording. But through the clues in the wording, The South Bank of the Red River would be the boundary between the two nations. In the [Supreme] Court proceedings in the 1920’s to define the boundary between Texas and Oklahoma, [that ruling] would further define that in saying that it is the south bank, that it is the jurisdiction line, and that it is where title would stop from the federal government and stop from the Texas government. So, any lands that were going to be titled out of either state would go to the south bank of the Red River. Now, the question was, “Where was the south bank of the Red River?” And so, out of the 1923 Supreme Court decision, the commissioners created a scientific method to determine that. There’s several steps that you have to go through to do that, you have to go and find a qualified bank, you have to define it from the toe of the slope of the bank to where it first crests over when it’s flooding; halfway between there is the gradient boundary. And it’s usually lowest bank, and it’s usually maybe three or four feet tall at most. Where these guys where putting the boundary was way inland, beyond trees that had been there for over a hundred years; we’re talking about 48-inch pecan trees, so hard-wood trees. Granted, they’re at the bottom of the valley of the Red River, but they’re not going to grow 48-inches overnight. The river’s going to meander; yes, that’s a fact. It’s going to have evulsions, it’s going to have accretions, it’s going to have erosions, it’s going to move in that valley over centuries. Where it’s going to end up, that’s where your boundaries always going to be. It’s called a natural boundary. And all states define their natural boundary as being the highest dignity of call. So, whenever somebody comes up and says, “My boundary goes all the way to the river,” well, the river IS the boundary. Now whether it’s on the south bank where it’s centered is contingent upon the law and the boundary you’re talking about, but they know that that’s a natural boundary, and that’s something that somebody can see; it’s a good layman’s way of saying, “This is my boundary.”
You can read the conclusion of this interview soon in part three.