With just over 100 million acres, California is poised for growth. But how much of this land is actually available for building, and how much is tied up as public land?

Public lands are managed by various government agencies, bureaus, departments, etc. In California, those that manage the largest amount of public land include the:

  • U.S. Department of Agriculture, encompassing the U.S. Forest Service (FS);
  • U.S. Department of Defense (DOD);
  • U.S. Department of the Interior, encompassing the:
    • Bureau of Land Management (BLM);
    • National Park Service (NPS); and
    • Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS);
  • State of California; and
  • local governments and agencies.

Federal lands

The FS is the largest manager of federal public lands in California, with 21 million acres or 21% of California’s total land under its domain.

The BLM cares for 15% of California’s total land area, equaling 15.2 million acres, most of it located in the eastern part of the state. It also manages 47 million acres of mineral estate underneath California’s federal lands, plus 1.5 million acres beneath private lands.

The NPS manages 7.6 million acres in California, or about 7% of California’s total land. California’s largest national parks and monuments include Death Valley, Joshua Tree and Yosemite.

Activities which commonly occur on federally managed public lands include:

  • recreation;
  • alternative energy farms;
  • mineral, oil and gas mining;
  • grazing; and
  • natural wildlife conservation.

Dozens of military bases and facilities exist across the state, equaling 1.9 million acres or 2% of California’s total surface area. The DOD only manages more land in two other states — Nevada and New Mexico.

The FWS manages 292,000 acres of land in California, less than 1% of its total land area. This includes numerous wildlife refuges and centers for fish health and hatcheries.

The federal government also has jurisdiction over land which houses California’s:

  • several penitentiaries and correctional facilities;
  • U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Hospitals;
  • points of entry, including:
    • border checkpoints;
    • seaports; and
    • airports.

Taken altogether, the federal government manages 45.9 million acres of California’s 100.2 million acres, or 46%.

State lands

Beginning in 1785, the U.S. government granted state trust lands to new states as they entered the union. This land was reserved in a central location of each township. The purpose of these land grants was to fund public services in the township, mostly for public schools. California’s original state land trust grant was 5.5 million acres.

Today, state trust lands equal 468,600 acres of surface land (about 0.5% of California’s total surface area), and 790,000 acres of sub-surface mineral land. Originally, state trust lands were distributed evenly around the state. Most are now found in California’s southeastern quadrant, where demand for development is small. The revenue generated on these lands — $9.5 million in the 2012-2013 fiscal year — funds the State Teachers’ Retirement System. Whenever trust land is sold, the profits go to the School Land Bank Fund.

Separate from these land trusts, the state owns 2,900 real properties, equaling 7 million acres or about 7% of California’s total land. The State Lands Commission is the largest holder of state land, with 4.5 million acres mostly covering tidelands and land used for schools. The Department of Parks & Recreation owns the next largest amount of land, 1.4 million acres. This includes over 340 miles of California coastline and 970 miles of lake and river frontage.

Many of the state’s properties are being used by the state for things such as:

  • K-12 schools;
  • community colleges and universities;
  • hospitals;
  • animal shelters;
  • libraries;
  • courthouses;
  • fire stations;
  • government offices;
  • parks; and
  • parking lots.

There are also some un-used lots and buildings on government property, called surplus property, which the sate occasionally puts up for sale. However, only 16 such properties were identified across the state in 2015.

To view a list of current property for sale by the state, see: Surplus Property Homepage.

Land crisis

California home prices continue to rise much faster than the rate of inflation, while home sales volume and inventory for sale drags. Would-be first-time homebuyers are with rare exception held back from purchasing, as their incomes can’t match home prices.

While new construction has the potential to save the day by adding more homes to the inventory and pulling home prices back within reach of homebuyers, the construction recovery is painfully slow.

Does the fact that over half of California’s land is owned by the federal or state government have anything to do with it? Perhaps if more land was available, builders would be able to build more units?

In fact, while the majority of California isn’t available for housing, this doesn’t have a lot to do with California’s housing crisis. That’s because the vast majority of public land is located in undesirable areas of the state — that is, far from metropolitan areas where jobs are located. Most public land is wilderness, unsuitable for building.

The true cause of California’s housing crunch is overly restrictive zoning regulations.

In the best of cases, zoning works to shape a healthy community, allowing ample room for multi-family and single-family residences, offices, retail and industrial buildings, schools, etc.

But in California’s popular metropolitan areas, demand for living space has far outstripped what is available. As a result, the only answer is to allow for higher, denser housing — or else see much of the population move out to the suburbs. In the Bay Area (where low-rise housing is the norm), one-in-three residents say they are considering leaving in search of a more reasonable cost of living, including cheaper housing.

California needs to make good use of its most desirable, urban areas first. Sending residents to the suburbs and beyond is not an ideal fix. Why not just build where the people want to live?