BLM and the Small Tract Act in the
Southern California Desert - A Brief History
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
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
*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."