MINOT, N.D. — Marvin Nelson is a Democratic member of the North Dakota House of Representatives from Rolla.

Michael Coachman is a frequent fringe candidate for office, as both a Republican and an independent, currently challenging incumbent Gov. Doug Burgum for the NDGOP's nomination.

Paul Sorum has also been a fringe candidate for state office, and a fan of bizarre legal arguments. In 2014 he tried to have himself and Coachman, his running mate at the time, declared the winners of the 2012 gubernatorial election because of a clerical error in the Secretary of State's office.

That Sorum and Coachman had earned less than 2% of the statewide vote was, apparently, irrelevant.

As you can probably guess, since I'm sure you don't remember a Sorum administration in the recent past, his gambit wasn't successful.

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Anyway, to the matter at hand.

Nelson, Coachman, and Sorum have, together, filed claims in Williams, Mountrail, and McKenzie counties to some 120,000 acres of western North Dakotan land worth an estimated $1.8 billion by my back-of-the-envelope calculations.

The men plan to split ownership among themselves, which would net each some $600 million.

Here's a copy of one of the claims from McKenzie County:

What in the world is going on here?

First, some back story.

There has been a yearslong legal battle over the rights to minerals under Lake Sakakawea. That body of water was created by the federal government when they dammed the Missouri River. During that process, the feds compensated many landowners for the surface rights to their flooded property, but many of those original landowners were not paid for the mineral rights.

Which is to say, the rights to any valuable materials under the surface, like gravel or oil.

For a long time, it was a moot point. Even if there were valuable materials under the surface, nobody could get it under the lake. There was little incentive to litigate the issue.

Then came North Dakota's oil boom, which was made possible by innovations in oil development like horizontal drilling. Something which also made it possible to reach oil under the lake.

Suddenly, those mineral acres became valuable again, and the litigation began.

Flash forward to 2017, the state Legislature passed a law giving up North Dakota's claim to minerals under the lake but outside the historic, pre-lake channel of the Missouri River. State governments own the land under navigable waters like lakes and rivers. In this circumstance, the Legislature and Governor Doug Burgum (who signed the bill into law) decided those minerals should belong to the property owners.

This was as a relief to the property owners, but then came a lawsuit filed by Nelson, Sorum, and Coachman arguing that it's unconstitutional for the State of North Dakota to, as they see it, give away valuable land.

North Dakota's state constitution has a prohibition on gifts. The state government can't just give people things.

Only, can you say that the state forgoing its land claim in a dispute is a gift?

The government letting us keep things is not a gift; otherwise tax cuts would be illegal since that's the government letting us keep more of our own money.

That suit is currently before the Supreme Court, but as it is being litigated, the plaintiffs — Sorum, Nelson, and Coachman — have filed claims to the land in dispute.

A satellite map showing the land claimed by Sorum, Coachman and Nelson. The purple squares and green dots represent 17 sections of land under Lake Sakakawea where the men are claiming a mineral interest.
A satellite map showing the land claimed by Sorum, Coachman and Nelson. The purple squares and green dots represent 17 sections of land under Lake Sakakawea where the men are claiming a mineral interest.

"Basically, the state owned it, and then they abandoned it, so we claimed it," Nelson told me when I spoke with him about the claims.

What about the original owners?

"What about them?" Nelson said when I asked.

In between bouts of calling me an a*****e (I suggested that Nelson has been hostile to the oil and gas industry in the past and he took exception), he explained that he and his fellow claimants "didn't have time" to discern which of those thousands and thousands of acres had claims and didn't.

But he did say he hopes their claims aren't successful. If their lawsuit is successful, the State of North Dakota will maintain claim to the minerals, though that, in turn, would mean more litigation.

If North Dakota owns those minerals, and if the original owners weren't compensated when they were taken back when the land was flooded, that means the original owners will likely have a claim to those minerals.

That will mean lots and lots of work for lawyers, and probably at some point, a hefty payout from the taxpayers, all to keep the state from forgoing its claim to minerals it perhaps, at least from a moral standpoint, shouldn't be claiming anyway.

Nelson, meanwhile, is confident in his strategy. "I understand the law better than most of the lawyers in this state," he told me.

He also cast himself as a champion of the people. "The only people who protected the people of North Dakota are the people who filed this lawsuit," he told me.

I'm not sure the North Dakotans who have spent years paying lawyers to fight for their claims to the minerals under that lake would agree.

I'm not sure North Dakota taxpayers will agree if Nelson and his co-plaintiffs are successful since the cost to the government of compensating these landowners for a long-ago taking would be enormous.

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Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at rport@forumcomm.com.