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Boom brings spike in land ownership court cases

WATFORD CITY -- Ann Johnsrud has been a busy woman lately.

As the county recorder for McKenzie County, she oversees the land records. Lately, though, it seems more like she's in the oil and gas business.

As more people want to figure out if they own mineral-rich land in western North Dakota, or as those who thought they had land decide it's now worth it to figure out ownership, the state has seen an increase in legal actions known as "quiet titles," court trials to figure out who owns land and how much of it.

"They have to go back almost to the beginning," Johnsrud said, "and our (McKenzie) county started in 1905, so they have to check all the deeds from there forward.

"We kind of see the beginning of it all," she said, "because it all starts here."

In the Northwest District courts, quiet title cases increased from 24 in 2006 to 141 in 2012. In the Southwest District, the jump was even more severe, from nine in 2006 to 122 last year.

"There's a lot more cases dealing with minerals," said Northwest District Judge David Nelson, who's based in Williston, "because there's more to fight about."

Digging up the past

Johnsrud said she's gotten to know the land men who flow through her office, sometimes daily.

The county recorder is often the first stop for someone looking to quiet title -- the records are important because in many of these cases the people who made them are long gone, and that's why a court has to figure out land ownership.

"That's one of the biggest challenges for the parties disputing who owns the property, but also for the lawyers and the courts involved is when you have deeds that go back to the 1950s or '60s -- in the vast majority of cases, the parties to those deeds are dead," said Joshua Swanson of the Vogel Law Firm in Fargo.

The court is left to figure out the intent of the parties, like, "What did grandpa intend when he reserved half these minerals to himself but gave one-quarter to the surface owner and one-quarter to someone else?" he said.

Sometimes, the disputes are within a family.

"In North Dakota, we take a lot of pride being a very family-focused state but minerals, especially minerals that are worth a lot of money -- that'll tear apart families pretty quick," Swanson said.

On the flip side, some inquiries for Johnsrud come from people all over the country who had family in North Dakota.

"Of course once people start hearing about the Bakken, they get an interest," she said. "'Gee, I wonder if I have anything, my great-grandfather lived there.'"

Not worth it till now

Larry Hamilton waited until it was worth his time in oil to finish figuring out a dispute over land his grandfather owned.

When the price of crude drops, "the oil business just kind of goes into a slumber," he said. "The same thought process really was with us."

Similarly to Hamilton, many potential mineral owners are coming out of the woodwork now that the value of the oil and gas outweighs the attorneys' costs of going to court to quiet title.

Hamilton's lawyer, Michael Maus, said a decade ago, his firm did a quiet title case maybe once every three years.

Now, the office sees 12 to 15 a year.

"We've seen a lot of activity just because now it's worthwhile and before it wasn't," he said.

'What you have is in the courthouse'

Quiet title cases aren't the only reflection of the Bakken boom in western North Dakota courthouses.

Nelson said he's dealing with a backlog of a half-century of probate cases as descendants want to figure out whether their relatives owned any mineral-rich land.

"Now these minerals are worth a great deal of money and the oil companies won't pay you for the oil until you prove that you're the current owner and that grandpa left them to you," Nelson said.

Last year, Williams, Divide, McKenzie and Mountrail counties accounted for about 42 percent of probate cases filed in the whole state, he said.

Hamilton's quiet title case is currently working its way through the Southwest District court, where a judge will look through 60-year-old records and figure out whose minerals are whose.

"My grandfather was doing this back in the early '50s, that was a good while ago," Hamilton said.

"Everyone who was involved back then is gone, so there's no first-hand accounts of this. So what you have is in the courthouse."