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New US land rush stakes out parcels underground

There is a land rush in Oklahoma today that rivals those of the 19th century. But this one doesn't involve settlers vying with each other to stake out choice acreage. Today's land rush is quiet, almost studious. But it is just as intense.

It's taking place in county courthouses not only in Oklahoma, but in other parts of the United States where precious oil and natural gas may still be awaiting discovery.

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The "landmen" involved are not sodbusters. In fact, they're not the least bit concerned with what's going on above ground. Their interest lies deep within the earth. They are prospectors for mineral rights.

Riffling recordbooks from the time courthouse doors open in the morning until dusk, these landmen are on the leading edge of the nation's spectacular increase in oil and gas exploration. This "oil rush" -- and the resulting heavy demand for qualified landmen -- can be traced to the 1973-74 Arab oil embargo and the subsequent quadrupling of oil prices.

Yet, the most frenzied activity has occurred in just the past two years. The advent of computerized seismology and techniques that allow for drilling deeper than 15,000 feet have led some experts to up their estimates of recoverable gas to levels four or five times higher than previously.

The landman's job is to research land record books in search of mineral rights owners. Then, the landman approaches the property owner and tries to make a deal. If a deal is struck, the landman handles the lease site until drilling begins.

Landmen are hired directly by the oil companies or by independent lease brokers. They usually work in consort with geophysicists and petroleum engineers in teams of three or four.

The scramble for mineral rights has spread across the country from Appalachia into the Southeast and through to the Midwest and Rocky Mountains. There are areas of concentration -- such as the Anadarko Basin in southern Oklahoma, which is thought to house a vast pocket of natural gas.

Clerks in one county courthouse in the area report landmen are "bending over counters, clerks' desks, squatting on the floor, sometimes taking up every square inch of space in the offices."

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The burst of exploratory activity has created an acute demand for qualified landmen. As a result, the average starting salary for college graduates with land management degrees range in at $19,500 last year and is expected to top $20 ,000 for this spring's graduates.

Up until five years ago the number of students at the University of Oklahoma graduating with land management degrees numbered roughly 20 a year. In 1979 the figure surpassed 100.This year the school expects to graduate more than 150 students with land management degrees.

The numbers are similar at the University of Texas, the only other school with a long-established land management program. The Texas program, begun in 1959, had 21 graduates in 1975, 128 in 1980, and is expected to top 200 this year. Approximately a dozen other colleges around the country already have offered, or are planning to offer, similar degree-programs in the near future.

Competition among oil companies for competent landmen is matched only by the competition between landmen themselves to reach mineral rights owners first. As the rivalries have heated up, farmers, ranchers, and other property owners have become savvy to the advances of landmen, who used to be regarded in the oil business as "wheeler-dealers."

But things have changed: Seldom now does the representative of an oil-exploration firm find himself sitting at the kitchen table of a shack, dealing with an illiterate farmer.

Leases used to run 10 years, they now average three to five years. Royalties have risen correspondingly. Property owners leasing their land used to expect to retain an average of one-eighth portion for royalties. This means that, with oil, the property owner would be granted the full market price for every eighth barrel of oil recovered. The royalty rate now goes as high as one-fourth, depending on the expectations of both th e landman and the mineral rights owner.

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