Inside the turf war between Texas and New Mexico over dirt

New Mexico has accused Texas of stealing its dirt and it wants to be paid back.

— -- New Mexico is tired of Texas playing dirty, and now the two states are digging in for a turf war -- over actual soil.

The Lone Star State has come under fire after years of allegedly dispatching road workers across state lines to collect protected New Mexico State Trust land soil to repair a spartan two-lane dirt road across the border. The road crews are accused of pirating the prized dirt from a parcel of New Mexico’s land just north of Road 506 in Otero County and then allegedly making a four-mile trip to Dell City, a small hamlet with a population of 425 people in Hudspeth County, Texas.

“They’re likely the same three or four guys in a road crew and they cross state lines and took the dirt and went to use it on their roads in Texas," New Mexico’s State Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn told ABC News. “We’re calling them dirty bandits and dirt desperados for doing this to the [school] kids."

Dunn said New Mexico uses the profits from minerals found in the soil to fund its public schools, hospitals, and infrastructure, which is why they're fighting back against the alleged theft. But that blame game isn’t sitting well with Hudspeth County Judge Mike Doyal in Texas, who said he is considering taking New Mexico to task for enjoying all the years of what he calls cost-free road maintenance.

The result is a battle over uninhabited dirt -- an irony not lost on either side.

“It’s the Wild West, what can I say?” Dunn said.

Doyal said Texas doesn't plan to back down anytime soon.

“It’s my thought if they want to push the issue, we’ll push the issue for 20 years of maintenance [of the state line road],” Doyal told ABC News.

He acknowledges the workers decided to use that soil as "a matter of convenience," wheeling their front-end loaders and dump trucks to scoop it up and transport it back to Texas.

“These workers are typically so far away it’s easier for them to handle it right close by,” Doyal said. “It’s there.”

Doyal also said state borders around the “uninhabited” territory are arbitrary.

“There’s no line drawn in the dirt,” he said. “You’ll find signs, but there are times it gets a little vague on that state line road.”

Standing on principle

But New Mexico officials disagree, claiming that Texas is encroaching on the state's 9 million acres of surface estate, which have been held in the trust since 1850. Surface estate refers to the land itself, not including any minerals, oil or gas beneath it. Today, the state also has 13 million mineral acres.

While some may mock Dunn making a fuss over Texans “pilfering” New Mexico’s dirt, Dunn believes he’s standing on principle.

“It’s bad to take anybody’s property no matter what it is,” he said. “It could be a sign out on a yard, a mailbox, or a car -- it’s still theft.”

Dunn explained that his office has proof that the Texans have been caught "red-handed" stealing sand and gravel.

On July 18, Dunn's commission sent a stern letter to three Hudspeth County Commissioners and their attorney demanding mining operations “cease and desist” until its office has assessed the totality of mining and “has been paid for the minerals mined and removed to date."

Dunn's letter also referenced the Google Earth images, and described the Texans' alleged land extraction as "greatly expanded mining activity occurring on the site."

The letter also mentioned how the mining and removal of state-owned minerals "without authorization from the Commissioner of Public Lands, or just compensation, constitutes a taking in violation of the 5th and 14th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution."

A line in the sand

For its part, Texas officials are not denying that they have taken the soil, but rather arguing that the state boundaries are unclear.

In a July 27 letter sent by C.R. “Kit” Bramblett, the attorney for the Hudspeth County Commissioners, he asked how Dunn or anyone else can certain of where the state borders are.

“My first question is where is the line between Texas and New Mexico,” wrote Bramblett, who said he’d “lived in Hudspeth all my life” as a rancher, farmer and now a lawyer. “There is a fence just north of the road in the picture and we have always thought that was the state line between Texas and New Mexico. How do you suggest that we determine exactly where the line is?”

In response, Dunn’s team conducted a field assessment to determine exactly where tire marks appear to have breached the brass caps set into the ground that designate where Texas ends and New Mexico begins.

In an Aug. 9 letter, the attorney for the New Mexican commission responded to Bramblett, saying that the State Land Office’s field inspection “included a visual ground search for survey markers.”

The conclusions from that inspection, the letter claimed, confirmed that the site where the valuable sand and gravel was sourced allegedly without authorization “is located north of New Mexico Road 506” and north of the brass caps that designate state lines.

“From this evidence,” the letter stated, “the State Land Office determined that the mineral removal occurred on New Mexico State Trust land.”

Dirt worth fighting for

The states’ dust-up over dirt, first reported by the Albuquerque Journal, has raised the issue of how lush and lucrative the grounds are.

According to the New Mexico State Trust Land Office, revenue from oil, gas, and minerals -- as well as ranching, farming, and commercial development -- is used to fund public schools, universities, hospitals and correctional facilities.

Grazing land rights claimed by cattle ranchers can fetch “a dollar an acre” in funds for public projects, Dunn said.

“We own these minerals,” Dunn added, pointing out that the state also has 13 million acres containing oil, gas, and minerals.

Profits from these resources generated almost $545 million in revenue in the fiscal year 2017, according to New Mexico State Land Commission data.

The dirt itself, Dunn and experts agree, is also ideal for patching roads.

“It’s got a lot more limestone in it, so it packs real well,” Dunn said.

Dunn said the Texas road crews are loading up on a caked layer of earth made up of accumulated calcium carbonate, also known as caliche, to help firm up their road surfaces.

Caliche is essentially crystallized calcium carbonate, or as Nancy McMillan, a New Mexico State University geology professor, calls it: “the white stuff that forms inside your shower.”

“It’s nature’s concrete,” McMillan told ABC News. “It’s fairly hard, fairly durable and it crystallizes around sand grains.”

New Mexico’s mix of arid and rainy conditions creates a lot of caliche.

Cliff Lucas, the district lab supervisor in the Roswell office of New Mexico Department of Transportation, said caliche is also convenient and binds well.

“Native caliche is a good road building material, and if you’re 50 or 90 miles from anywhere, it can be cost prohibitive to a construction project if you don't use native building materials,” Lucas told ABC News. “Most caliche pits are all over the state and a lot of alternate roads and county roads are paved with it.”

But caliche's sand and gravel makeup is a draw for road construction projects because it naturally wards off erosion and "doesn't get polished by tires and become slick easily," McMillan said.

'We're just hoping they pay us'

Doyal, who said he was a sheriff’s deputy before becoming a judge, said that the fight over dirt has him trying to make peace.

“How much is caliche worth?” he asked. “It’s something that the road is [made of], yea, but it’s still dirt.”

But Dunn said the dirt allegedly stolen by the Texans is worth thousands of dollars.

And if Texas wants peace, Dunn said they could get it by cutting a check.

“We’re hoping they just pay us,” he added.

But failing that, Dunn said New Mexico is willing to “fight this battle in court” if it comes down to it.

Doyal is confident that things can be settled as they used to be -- with both states working together.

"You gotta understand the old country way of things: if it helps you out on this deal, then we want to do that. But we also want to help our citizens, too," he said.