Texas, Oklahoma negotiate end to border dispute

Proposed deal draws line along bank of Red River

congressional OK needed


OKLAHOMA CITY -- Texas and Oklahoma finally have drawn a line in the sand -- literally -- in their decades-old feud over the Red River border.

The two states formally agreed last week that their dividing line is the river's south bank, at the point where vegetation commences. Both legislatures endorsed the new state line. Gov. George W. Bush has signed the Texas measure into law.

If Gov. Frank Keating approves the Oklahoma version, it's up to Congress to give final approval to the new boundary, aimed at ending jurisdictional confusion that long hampered law enforcement, wildlife officials and taxing authorities, among others.

`Very significant change'

"It is a very significant change in that it solves problems that have plagued citizens of the Red River Valley for almost 200 years," said Bill Abney, a Marshall, Texas, lawyer who leads the Lone Star State's Red River Boundary Commission.

Shelving years of rivalry, the two states negotiated a border that, supporters say, is historical, practical and economical -- and doesn't give either state huge chunks of new land.

But not everybody's happy. At least one Oklahoma lawmaker said he is convinced his state is losing thousands of acres in what amounts to a Texas land grab.

"This is a good deal for Texas, but not for Oklahoma," said Sen. Robert Kerr, an Altus, Okla., Democrat.

Kerr said Oklahoma is handing Texas 10,835 acres in two of his district's counties, Jackson and Harmon, but he is not certain whether Oklahoma regains land elsewhere along the 540-mile Red River boundary.

`A little sand'

Abney said studies show Texas actually is the state giving up land -- up to about 500 acres along the river. He said Texas officials concluded that the loss is "insignificant" when compared with the jurisdictional problems that will be solved by the border pact.

"There's some land in Texas that goes to Oklahoma and some land in Oklahoma that goes to Texas, but it's very nominal," Abney said. "What we're talking about is a little sand along the river."

Even so, Kerr nearly derailed the compact last week, employing a series of parliamentary maneuvers in a bid to thwart it in the Oklahoma Legislature's final week. When he failed, he said he resigned as chairman of Oklahoma's Red River Boundary Commission.

Democrat Kerr said he has no plans to lobby Keating, a Republican, to veto the measure. But Kerr also said he has been told that some GOP lawmakers might press the government to reject it.

Dan Mahoney, the governor's communications director, said Keating has until June 11 to act on the measure. He said the governor has taken no public position on the proposal.

Dispute's long history

The Texas-Oklahoma line was in dispute long before either state joined the union. The boundary initially was a result of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. But it wasn't until 1821 that the United States and Spain agreed on the details.

Later, the Supreme Court twice ruled that the boundary, as established in the U.S.-Spain treaty, was the gradient line on the Red River's south bank.

According to officials in both states, the high court rulings didn't resolve the issue because the river expands and shrinks, depending on heavy rains, flooding, soil erosion and vegetation growth.

The incessant change, experts said, makes it difficult, if not impossible, for law officers, wildlife agents and tax collectors to easily identify their jurisdictions, often creating a virtual no-man's-land where taxes aren't collected and lawbreakers aren't pursued.

Jurisdictional problems

"A sheriff will be able to find a poacher or a dead body and determine exactly where it is" with the new border, said state Sen. Jeff Rabon, who successfully shepherded the measure through the Oklahoma Senate. "It's been so ambiguous in the past that it's created a real burden in taking cases to court because you have to prove jurisdiction.

"There are actual cases where poor counties didn't have the resources to put on a case to prove where" a crime occurred, he said.

Supporters of the new boundary said using the vegetation line as the dividing point makes it easier to identify.

"It gives a boundary that the common citizen and law-enforcement official can identify without a lawyer and a surveyor," Abney said.

`Best we came up with'

The Texas-Oklahoma line, he said, will remain unchanged as it slices across Lake Texoma, relying on the surveying done when the lake was built more than 50 years ago.

"It may not be a perfect draft, but it's the best we came up with after eight years of hard work," said Rabon, a Hugo, Okla., Democrat. "No one's offered a better solution."

Pub Date: 6/01/99

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