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Mineral Rights : Dust Bowl's Heirs Miss a Big Boom

March 15, 1987|DONALD WOUTAT | Times Staff Writer

ELKHART, Kan. — The taxpayers get $1.46 a month for every cow that grazes on government property near this town where Kansas, Oklahoma and Colorado almost overlap. It looks like a good arrangement all around, considering that the land used to be worthless.

The animals roam the 107,000-acre Cimarron National Grasslands and eat the bluestem, buffalo grass and other vegetation sown here since the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s in what has been a generally successful government effort to stop the land from blowing away.

$50,000 Each Year

The $50,000 or more in grazing fees that Uncle Sam collects each year helps to maintain the whole enterprise--the windmills that pump water for the cattle, the picnic grounds along the Cimarron River, the blinds where bird watchers gather every March to see the annual mating dance of the lesser prairie chicken.

The pastoral scene suggests that the Dust Bowl is over, and in most respects it is. But the interim discovery of oil and gas here has irrevocably linked the past to the future, and this winter the land is playing tricks again--snatching wealth from the heirs of the long-departed homesteaders and parceling it out to the general citizenry on the eve of a drilling boom in Kansas.

A massive but little-noticed transfer of ownership of mineral rights here from private to public hands, a legacy of New Deal-era legislation, is putting the U.S. government deeper and deeper into the oil and gas business. And far more than $50,000 in grazing fees is changing hands.

Firms Bid for Rights

Some of the nation's biggest oil and gas companies are feverishly bidding for those mineral rights. They are paying Uncle Sam thousands of times as much in bonus money--$18 million to date--as they paid the original landowners and their descendants for leases in years past.

"It's a rip-off," said Carol Baldwin of Granada Hills, Calif., who recently lost the rights to the minerals beneath her family farm. She believes her parents were deceived by the government when they sold the land 50 years ago.

"It's like a fairy tale," said Kenneth Fowler, superintendent of the 615-student Elkhart, Kan., school district, which is about to realize a multimillion-dollar windfall.

"It's fate," said Edgar W. White, a local lawyer.

It's gas, actually--natural gas.

The dry, exhausted land that drove farmers away during the 1930s turned out to be a corner of what is now the largest producing natural-gas field in the United States. In terms of tax revenues, the Hugoton field, source of 73 trillion cubic feet of gas and a key part of the empire of oilman T. Boone Pickens Jr., has since made this the richest part of Kansas.

There were only faint hints of such mineral wealth when the U.S. Department of Agriculture moved into Morton County, Kan., in 1935 and began offering to bail out farmers from acreage that had turned against them.

Morton County's topography, culture and semi-arid climate have more in common with Texas or Oklahoma than with wheat-rich Kansas. Farmers learned the hard way that this land was meant for cattle, not grain. For a good time, folks here go not to Wichita but south across the Oklahoma Panhandle to Amarillo, Tex.

Early histories depict the area as a drought-stricken place where it was almost impossible to make a living, a region most people passed through on their way somewhere else. The county straddles the historic Santa Fe Trail from Missouri to New Mexico, but those westward-bound settlers who decided to end their journey here must have regretted it.

Morton County was dead center in the Dust Bowl, that region of 51 million acres where drought and high winds combined to turn the unprotected topsoil into massive clouds of dust that darkened the sky for hours at a stretch. In the mid-1930s, hundreds of such dust storms swept over parts of Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Colorado.

"It was like a desert," lawyer White said, recalling conditions there in 1939, the year his family moved to Elkhart. "There wasn't a blade of anything."

Although the Dust Bowl era saw the best-documented mass emigration from the heartland, a similar drought in the 1880s had caused hundreds of farmers to abandon this part of Kansas. So when history repeated itself in the 1930s and agents from the Agriculture Department's Resettlement Administration showed up with checks in hand, there were more takers than there was government money.

Leonard Roll of Van Nuys, Calif., whose parents, Charlie and Dell Roll, sold the family farm in 1937 and moved on, recalls: "They were broke. There was nothing else they could do but sell out for a lousy $4.50 an acre."

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