BLM and the Small Tract Act in the Southern California Desert - A Brief History
Lou Bellesi

The Small Tract Act of 1938 was enacted in response to requests by primarily World War I Servicemen who wanted to move out in the desert for health and recreational purposes. Subsequently, after World War II, Southern Californians began looking for small acreages in the desert to get away from the smog and burgeoning population centers. The Small Tract Act was about the only method of making federal land available. Local counties were enthusiastic about "getting lands on the tax rolls", and were not concerned about infrastructure (roads, water, power, schools) to support such development.

The entire program, like Topsy, "just growed."  In early 1959 the program was not resulting in an orderly development of the desert. Thousands of requests for classification for Small Tract disposal were pending. The requests were handled on a first-come, first-served basis, and at the same time there were several thousand vacant small tracts that had never been proved up on (no structure built). Those with applications for classification were pressuring Congress for action on their requests. Public hearings were held in Riverside and San Bernardino to resolve the situation. Local officials testified that counties wanted the lands put on the tax rolls, and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) officers were not too sure how fast they could respond to the crush of applications. (Training of personnel and streamlining of procedures were required.)

Nolan Keil was sent to the Los Angeles Office of BLM and noted that if the classification requests pending and the non-developed areas of previously classified areas could be shuffled together, the situation might be remedied. Subsequently, the development (structure) requirements for small tracts were dropped and lands were offered at fair market value (FMV) with no building requirement. Local officials were not completely happy with this arrangement, but it did lead to the end of the speculative boom in Small Tracts. Some 4,000 previously classified Small Tracts were offered at public auction at FMV, and the demand balloon punctured. Several hundred sold at the auction and the remainder were offered at weekly public auctions at no less than FMV.

When the public saw that there were lands available on a continuing basis in various areas, the land boom subsided. Procedures for requests for classification of "new" areas were streamlined, too. Instead of first-come, first-served in order of application, entire areas were examined for classification. In time, and under competent leadership ("Spud" Chandler, Oliver Johnson, and others), the situation was handled.

Some of the problems that evolved from the Small Tract Program were:

*Failure to reserve proper road right-of-ways (ROW). In some cases no ROW's were set aside in classification orders, and in such cases reserves were made around the perimeter of each individual tract. This restricted the use of the entire tract when in reality only one side needed to be encumbered.

*Classification for small tract disposal of unsuitable lands. Some early classifications were made from inadequate maps with no land examination. Steep terrain and blow-sand areas were classified, resulting in impassible roads and non-buildable sites.

*Unsightly or inappropriate structures.

*Leap-frog types of development.

*Inadequate subdivision because of survey limitations. Compare Yucca Valley (mostly privately developed) and Morongo Valley (Small Tracts).

*Limited commercial development.

Recently, a Los Angeles paper had an article about the Congress, at the behest of a California Congressman, appropriating a goodly sum of money to eradicate slums in the "Wonder Valley," a former Southern California Small Tract development. The Congressman railed at the federal government for permitting such development to occur. One can only recall the words of local officials' testimony, decades ago, "Just get these public lands in private ownership and we will oversee the development." By and large, the Small Tract Program did transfer public lands into private ownership on a limited basis. It wasn't a "pretty" program, but on balance could be considered a successful "Hobson's Choice."