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Oil boom causes increase in land ownership disputes

WATFORD CITY, N.D. (AP) — Western North Dakota’s oil boom has fueled a surge in court disputes over land ownership and the rights to the minerals beneath the surface.Because of the money to be made from mineral-rich land, more people are trying to find out if they own some or are deciding it’s worth the costs of going to court over land they believe is theirs, The Dickinson Press reported. That has increased legal actions called quiet titles, cases that determine who owns land and how much of it.

In Northwest District courts, those cases have increased from 24 in 2006 to 141 in 2012. In the Southwest District courts, the cases have risen from nine in 2006 to 122 last year.

Officials say the cases can be challenging because deeds go back decades.

“They have to go back almost to the beginning, and our county started in 1905, so they have to check all the deeds from there forward,” said McKenzie County recorder Ann Johnsrud.

Joshua Swanson, a Fargo lawyer, said a big challenge in ownership disputes is that in most cases, the parties to the decades-old deeds are dead. The court then has to figure out the intent of the parties, he said.

“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?” Swanson said.

Some disputes are between family members, Swanson said.

“In North Dakota, we take a lot of pride in 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.

Johnsrud said inquiries come from people all over the country who once had family in North Dakota and know about the oil and gas boom in the area.

Quiet title cases are not the only reflection of the oil boom in North Dakota courthouses.

Northwest District Judge David Nelson, based in Williston, said he is 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.

Nelson said Williams, Divide, McKenzie and Mountrail counties accounted last year for about 42 percent of probate cases filed in the entire state.

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