East Texans file new lawsuits to access beloved body of water

People fished and hunted at the Cutoff for years, before a fence went up around its entrance.

By Michael MarksJanuary 20, 2023 11:15 am,

It’s been almost a year since a maroon and silver fence with ‘No Trespassing’ signs appeared around the access to the Cutoff. And it’s still there.

The Cutoff is a body of water in East Texas along the border of Henderson and Navarro Counties. Generations of people have gone there to fish, boat, and camp. But a new landowner bought property bordering the Cutoff toward the end of 2020, and put up the fence shortly thereafter.

Duck hunting at the Cutoff has been especially good this year, according to Dustin Baker, the leader of a local advocacy group called Save the Cutoff that wants the fence removed. But if he had his way, he’d sacrifice a few of the gadwalls and mallards he’s bagged so more people could enjoy the space.

“The fence has deterred a ton of people. And it’s made the hunting better for us, as far as not so many people being there. But I would rather have open free use of the place. You know that fence, it’s a pain in the butt,” he said.

Baker and others slide their boats over the fence and get in anyway, with the blessing of local law enforcement. But not everyone can do that.

“We have a lot of individuals that have physical impairments and disabilities that aren’t allowed to use the Cutoff right at this point because they can’t access that,” Baker said.

Phillip Surls, the owner of nearby Iron River Ranch, is the person who had the fence put up. In September, the Texas Department of Transportation requested that Surls remove the fence, since it was on their right of way. When nothing happened, TxDOT then referred the matter to the Texas Attorney General’s office.

Neither Baker nor his lawyer have heard from the AG’s office yet. So last week, Save the Cutoff announced two new legal actions: one against Henderson County, the other against Phillip Surls and Iron River Ranch.

The lawsuit against Henderson County deals with a road that people once used to access the Cutoff.

The road was part of a park that was leased to the county, and led to a boat ramp where people would get in the water. Save the Cutoff is asking a judge to declare that the road is in fact property of Henderson County, so that it can be maintained and used as an access point for the Cutoff.

Clint Davis, the Henderson County Attorney, doesn’t know whether that road belongs to the county. But he does think that Surls should be involved with the lawsuit, since it runs through his property.

“We probably at the end of the day don’t care too much,” Davis said. “If it’s a county road, we’ll go in there and establish it as a county road. I just don’t know how that would work and how we would even begin to go back there and reestablish it without Mr. Surls being involved in that court order.”

Along with the fence work, Surls also had soil around the Cutoff dredged up and moved to create a bigger buffer between the water and the road – work which violated the Clean Water Act, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Surls could face fines and be ordered to undo the dredging, but that hasn’t happened yet. Save the Cutoff sent notice that it plans to file a lawsuit against Surls for those violations if there’s no action by March 10.

“We ain’t trying to break anybody, we just want access back to the property and we want the environmental stuff put back right,” Baker said.

Neither Surls nor his lawyer responded to an interview request for this story. He hasn’t said much of anything publicly since this all began – although in November, some folks who lived in the area received an anonymous letter that said the Save the Cutoff group didn’t have their facts straight, and that the property owner has “exercised his right to protect his private property and livestock.”

Whoever wrote the letter said they were not the property owner, just a local resident tired of “misinformation and lies.” It also accused Save the Cutoff of encouraging people to donate their money to a lost cause.

The group has held fundraisers for its legal fees. Baker plans to put on a crappie fishing tournament this spring to help raise money.

“It’ll help us get the word out a little more,” Baker said. “We want to incorporate the youth into this fishing tournament, maybe a separate class for them. You know, just try to figure out something to try to get everybody to open their eyes a little more.”

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