By David Bowser
AMARILLO Despite a unanimous ruling by the Texas Supreme Court, a land dispute over the Canadian River bed seems to have taken on a life of its own.
Hunters and those who have used the riverbed along a 37-mile stretch of the Canadian River for recreation have presented the Texas Attorney General's office and Texas General Land office with petitions signed by more than 3000 people calling for a rehearing on the case.
For more than a decade, landowners along the river in Hutchinson and Roberts counties have claimed their land reaches to the edge of the flowing water in the river. The state claimed the traditional boundary of the riverbed, which in some places is more than a mile wide.
In 1965, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers constructed Sanford Dam across the river, forming Lake Meredith. The stretch of river below the dam now runs shallow and narrow, rarely more than a few yards at its widest point.
Since surface water in the Lone Star State is publicly owned, hunters, sportsmen and recreationists have long used the swath of river bottoms left by the stream's natural flow.
More than 13 years ago, a group of landowners filed suit against the Texas General Land Office in an attempt to establish where the boundary between state and private property lay.
On Oct. 7, the Texas Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the landowners along the disputed stretch of river owned the property essentially up to the edge of the water flow. The decision gives the ranchers between 13,000 and 14,000 acres, leaving the state with only 138 acres of the river bottom.
To complicate matters, there are now reports of oil and gas production in the disputed territory that pumps money into the state's school fund. Mary Jane Wardlow of the Texas General Land Office says there are between 800 and 1000 active and inactive wells on three leases in the disputed region.
Since February 1996, she says, the Permanent School Fund has received $126,000 in revenue from those wells.
The only active lease belongs to the J.M. Huber Corp. of Amarillo, she says. The two inactive leases belong to Arrington CJM Inc. of Canadian and Vernon L. Smith and Associates Inc., of Norman, Okla.
Protesters packed a Texas Senate Natural Resources Committee hearing Oct. 26 in Amarillo, concerning the river dispute when it wasn't even on the committee's agenda.
Sen. Teel Bivins, a committee member and Panhandle rancher with land upstream from Lake Meredith, says he has spent more time trying to work out a compromise on the boundary dispute since he has been in office than any other issue facing his district.
The issue, Bivins says, has been through three land commissioners: Bob Armstrong, Garry Mauro and David Dewhurst, and Bivins' two predecessors in the Texas Senate, Max Sherman and Bill Sarpalius.
The dilemma Bivins says he found is that each side believes so strongly it is right that neither side is willing to compromise.
Both Bivins and Mauro at different times have tried to implement such compromises, but to no avail.
Mauro, now a lawyer in private practice in Austin, says he suggested regulated hunting and nominal grazing in the area during certain times of year.
Bivins says he tried to establish a recreational area, but the ranch that would have been used to provide the area has since been sold.
"This has gone on for 35 years," Bivins says.
The Texas Supreme Court has delayed the implementation of its decision until Nov. 8, so the land office could study the ruling and decide whether to appeal it to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Wardlow says there appears to be no basis in federal law for such an appeal.
However, it does appear that the land office and attorney general's office will ask for a hearing before the Texas Supreme Court to clarify the ruling.
Meanwhile, the upcoming opening weekend of deer season has hunters and some local officials in a legal minefield.
As things stand today, hunters will either have to stay in Hutchinson County or risk criminal charges if they hunt along the Roberts County stretch immediately to the east.
Hutchinson County Attorney Michael Milner says the long-disputed land in his county will be treated as belonging to the state and open to the public at least until the Nov. 8 appeal deadline, leaving hunters at least two days to be on the land.
``Until everybody knows where they stand, and right now it is in limbo ... I'm uncomfortable enforcing it until Nov. 8,'' Milner said. ``I can sympathize with everybody not knowing where they stand. If it had been over in the summer, everybody would have known what was going to happen. Right now, again, we'll wait until at least Nov. 8.
``I certainly can't criticize Mr. Roach's decision," Milner continued. "But my position is not the same as Mr. Roach's.''
His reference is to Roberts County Attorney Rich Roach, who told the Amarillo Globe-News for its Tuesday editions that unless or until the court reverses itself on appeal, ``right now the land is owned by the landowners.''
He added, ``If someone rolls the dice and goes hunting out there, we are going to prosecute.''
The disputed land begins about two miles downstream from the Plemons Bridge in Hutchinson County and ends about two miles downstream from a bridge crossing Texas 70 in Roberts County between Pampa and Perryton, the General Land Office said.
General white-tailed deer and turkey hunting seasons open in Hutchinson and Roberts counties Nov. 6. Quail season will open Saturday. The three animals are a favorite of hunters on the longtime public land, the Globe-News reported.
Roach said people hunting on private land in his county will be charged with criminal trespass, a class A misdemeanor, plus any other offenses against state wildlife laws. Criminal trespass carries a possible $1000 fine and one year in county jail, he said.
``My situation is, if you go out on the land and hunt, you are poaching,'' Roach said. ``This is fair warning. I'm sorry they lost, but until that decision is overturned, it is the law in Roberts County.''
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