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90 year old Texas rancher in a David vs. Goliath struggle

James White is a fighter. He fought his way through France and Germany, battling Nazis in World War II. A few years later, he served in Korea.

He came back to East Texas and worked hard to turn a run-down piece of property near Athens into a working ranch to raise registered quarter horses and cattle. He battled weather, markets, and all the other calamities a Southwest rancher faces at one time or another.

But at 90 years old, this disabled veteran is facing what may be the hardest battle he’s fought yet. And the odds are against him.

White is taking on an oil company in court. He’s suing for compensation for damage to his property from oil rigs, trucks, and other equipment.

Mr. White phoned on a recent Sunday afternoon to explain his dilemma. “They’re tearing up my property,” he said, “I can’t get reimbursed for damages, so I’m suing the oil company.”

He’s already lost the first skirmish. He asked the court to require the oil company, TDX Energy, to pay up front for access to the mineral rights they control under his land. “The judge said he wished he could grant my request,” White said, “but his hands were tied.” Mineral rights — at least in Texas — trump surface rights.

White didn’t back down. But he was forced to unlock his gates and allow the oil company access to the East Texas property that he has built up from a hard scrabble farm to a fenced, cross-fenced, and productive ranch. “I started building up the farm when I was 28,” he said. “It was not the family farm, but I’ve worked in some of that, too.”

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He’s distressed to see his life’s work torn up by a company that seems indifferent to the financial and emotional investments he’s made in the property. It’s worth fighting for, he says, even at 90. So he’s hired a lawyer and is suing for $5.5 million.

He’s well aware of the David versus Goliath odds against him, and was apprised of the challenges numerous times as he searched for an attorney to represent him. Several, he recalled, signed on for a while and then backed off. He found one out of Austin he believes will stay the course.

White says current law favors the large oil companies — mineral rights owners — over landowners. And he says that’s a gross injustice. “I want some politician to consider changing the law, so surface owners’ rights override mineral rights.”

White thinks informing the public about what he sees as a blatantly unfair law could generate support for change. That’s why he called Southwest Farm Press.

I don’t get a lot of work-related calls on Sunday afternoons, but when I recognize a number from a rural locale in Texas, Oklahoma, or New Mexico — or just about any of the other Sunbelt regions I’ve worked over the years — I’m  eager to listen.  And I’m more than willing to tell James White’s story. I hope it helps.

It seems a disgrace that a man who served his country in two wars, worked hard for more than 60 years to build a good ranch, and asks only for equitable reimbursement for property damages, should be summarily dismissed as a mere nuisance to commerce.

This country ought to be better than that. We owe James White better than that.

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