Strike Two: Right-Wing Media's Newest “Land Grab” Freakout Still Not On The Side Of The Law

Steve DoocyThe right-wing media has shifted its focus from Cliven Bundy to hyping false reports of a government “land grab” in Texas -- again finding itself denying court-established property rights.

On April 21, Breitbart Texas claimed that Bureau of Land management (BLM) is “reviewing the possible federal takeover and ownership of privately-held lands which have been deeded property for generations of Texas landowners.” Breitbart argued that the BLM had attempted to “seize” property from Texan Tom Henderson in 1986, and baselessly speculated that because the BLM is “in the process of developing a Resource Management Plan,” the office may be planning on “simply confiscating the land.” Breitbart described the old case by claiming “Henderson sued the BLM and lost 140 acres that had been in his family for generations. Now the BLM is looking at using the prior case as a precedent to claim an additional 90,000 acres.”

Other right-wing outlets picked up Breitbart's frame. The Daily Caller trumpeted the BLM's “intent to claim 90,000 acres along the Red River” in Texas, The Blaze hyped “new concerns that [the BLM] may be looking to claim thousands of acres of land in the northern part of the state,” and Fox News host Steve Doocy claimed that the government “is reportedly trying to claim 90,000 acres along the Red River, the line that separates the states of Texas and Oklahoma,” from local ranchers. Doocy highlighted the 1986 case and noted that “many fear the Bureau of Land Management may use that case as a precedent to do it again.” Meanwhile, an on-air graphic stoked fears of a “government land grab”:

These claims are entirely baseless. The 1986 case that the right-wing media's narrative relies on -- Currington v. Henderson -- did not pit a local Texas landowner against the federal government. Currington was a land dispute between two local property owners over a portion of land on the Texas-Oklahoma border. A federal district court ultimately found that, in fact, neither claimant had rights to the land, which was already owned by the United States government. From the court findings:

The lands north of the medial line adjacent to Sections 3 and 4, Township 5 South, Range 9 West of the Indian Meridian are part of those lands and are owned by the respective plaintiffs. The lands lying in the bed of the Red River south of the medial like adjacent thereto are owned by the United States.

The idea that the case constituted a “land grab” is a recent embellishment based on a faulty understanding of the lawsuit, and doesn't even reflect rancher Tom Henderson's comments on the decision. In 1986, Henderson called the dispute “a very big mess” that caused tension between his family and the neighbors who had also claimed the land and later compared his purchase of the land to unknowingly buying a stolen car saying “It's like if you bought a stolen car with money you borrowed from the bank -- the bank still wants the money.”

As BLM spokesperson Paul McGuire told Media Matters, the agency is involved in a “broad-based planning effort” to develop a resource management plan for the states of Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. McGuire noted that periodic surveys are necessary to react to technological and landscape changes that affect the agency's responsibilities. He cited “the consequences of hydraulic fracking” as an example of “precisely the type of thing we'd be looking at in more detail.” 

It is a routine thing that BLM does. The plans that we rely on generally have to be updated every 15 to 20 years. So the ones that we currently have on the books for this year date back to the 1990s. It's much broader than the Red River but we have a strip of land in the region.

The agency has done nothing to signal plans of a future “land grab” and has even said that it “is categorically not expanding federal holdings along the Red River.”