About the California State Lands Commission

The California State Lands Commission serves the people of California by providing stewardship of the lands, waterways, and resources entrusted to its care through economic development, protection, preservation, and restoration. In 1938, the California Legislature established the State Lands Commission as an independent public commission. Prior to 1938, the Commission was a division within the Department of Finance. In 1937, serious irregularities relating to the execution of a boundary line agreement in Malibu, settlement of trespass litigation that had been brought against Union Oil and the issuance of permits for oil drilling in Huntington Beach were brought to light. Ultimately division Chief Carl Sturzenacker and petroleum production inspector Arthur Alexander, were charged and dismissed from state service by the State Personnel Board. The necessity of an independent commission that makes its decisions in public was made apparent by the behavior of these individuals.

Since 1938, the Commission has been comprised of three members: the Lieutenant Governor, the State Controller, and the Governor’s Director of Finance. The combination of the two principal financial officers of the state with two state-wide elected officials provides the state with assurances that decisions made by the Commission will be fiscally sound and in keeping with the will of the people. Public awareness and participation is assured in that all Commission actions are taken at properly noticed public meetings.

The Commission is led by an Executive Officer who is responsible for the day-to-day business of the Commission. The Commission has a staff of more than 200 including specialists in mineral resources, land management, boundary determination, petroleum engineering and the natural sciences. Commission staff strives to balance the goals of maximizing the return on the use of state lands and resources entrusted to its care with providing the highest possible level of environmental and resource enhancement and protection of these lands for current and future generations. While the Commission has some regulatory functions, principally it is a land and resource management agency, not a regulatory agency. 

A primary function of the Commission is to issue leases and contracts for the use of the state’s property and resources. The Commission's management of the lands and natural resources are based on the highest standards of environmental protection, financial responsibility, consistency with the Public Trust Doctrine, and whether the proposed use occupation is in the best interests of the state. Separately, the Legislature has provided that the Commission has regulatory authority over marine oil terminals for the prevention of oil spills and the introduction of invasive species in California waters.

Frequently Asked Questions

What lands are under the Commission’s jurisdiction?

The lands under the Commission’s jurisdiction are of two distinct types – sovereign and school lands. Other lands, such as rancho lands and lands owned by other state agencies, are not under the Commission’s jurisdiction.

The first type of lands, sovereign lands, encompasses approximately four million acres. These lands are the beds of California's naturally navigable rivers, lakes and streams as well as the state's tide and submerged lands that extend from the shoreline out to three miles offshore along the state's more than 1,130 miles of coastline. In short, the Commission's jurisdiction over sovereign lands extends to more than 120 rivers and sloughs, 40 lakes and the state's coastal waters. 

The second type of lands, usually referred to as "school lands," is what remains of the nearly 5.5 million acres throughout the state originally granted to California by the Congress in 1853 to benefit public education. California retains surface and mineral ownership of approximately 430,000 acres of these school lands and retains the mineral rights in an additional 790,000 acres.

The resources contained within sovereign lands and school lands managed by the Commission are diverse. The resources range from commercially valuable minerals such as oil, natural gas, hard rock minerals, sand, gravel and geothermal steam to unique natural resources such as forests, grazing lands, wetlands, riparian vegetation and fish and wildlife habitat. In the recent years, there has been an increasing interest in renewable energy resources such as tide, wave, wind, and solar.

In management of these lands, the Commission has similar concerns as any other landowner in terms of how to best protect the lands. However, unlike a typical landowner, because the Commission is the trustee for these lands on behalf of Californians, it must balance long-term preservation of the resources with responsible economic development so that the Commission can find that it is in the state’s best interest. Further, any projects undertaken or approved by the Commission must be consistent not only with the Commission’s statutes and regulations, but with common law Public Trust Doctrine.

The Commission receives applications for leases from public and private entities for many purposes including marinas, pipelines, industrial wharves, piers, recreational paths, and restoration projects. The decision to issue leases and manage these lands is challenging because the boundary is not always readily locatable and the presence of endangered species, varied natural and cultural resources.

The Commission also exercises oversight authority over sovereign lands granted in trust by the Legislature to approximately 80 local jurisdictions, as well as administration of the mineral rights on certain lands under the jurisdiction of other state and local agencies.

How do I know if I need a lease from the Commission?

If you are planning on using, constructing facilities or other improvements on, developing any resources or minerals located on, or otherwise occupying any lands described above, such activity may be within the Commission’s jurisdiction.  The best course of action is to call or submit an inquiry to the Commission.

California State Lands Commission
100 Howe Avenue Suite 100 South
Sacramento, CA 95825-8202

Leasing information (916) 574-1940
Mineral Leasing information (562) 590-5201

Upon receipt of an inquiry about the proposed use of state lands, the Commission staff reviews its files and information submitted to determine the extent of the state's property or regulatory interest in the project site.  If staff determines that the proposed project is within the Commission’s jurisdiction, you will be advised and an application must be submitted.  No project can proceed until the Commission has considered and taken action on the application. 

How do I get started?

You may call the Commission at (916) 574-1900.  Your call will be directed to a staff to assist you in determining if the project is within the Commission’s jurisdiction or advise you of what information or materials will be necessary to make a determination.  If it appears that is likely that a lease or other authorization would be required, this person can also assist you in completing the application.

California Relay Services:
From TTY Phone 1-800-735-2929
From Voice Phone 1-800-735-2922

The Public Trust Doctrine

As general background, California became the trustee of the sovereign lands within its jurisdiction upon its admission to the United States in 1850. The state holds and manages these lands for the benefit of all Californians for statewide purposes consistent with the common law Public Trust Doctrine. The common law Public Trust Doctrine restricts the uses of sovereign lands, which are held in perpetuity by the state in trust for people of the state. 

The origins of the common law Public Trust Doctrine are traceable to Roman law concepts of common property ownership. Under Roman law, the air, the rivers, the sea and the seashore were incapable of private ownership as they were dedicated to the use of the public. English common law refined this principle to state that the sovereign holds navigable waterways as a trustee of a public trust for the benefit of the people for water-related uses. After the American Revolution, each of the original states succeeded to this sovereign role and became a trustee of the navigable waterways within its boundaries for the common use of the people.  When California became a state in 1850, it too succeeded to the same sovereign rights and duties under the Equal-Footing Doctrine. 

The overarching principle of the common law Public Trust Doctrine is that it is an affirmation of the duty of the state to protect the people’s common heritage in navigable waters for their common use and includes a prohibition on the sale of these lands. As a common law doctrine, the courts have played a significant role in shaping the Public Trust Doctrine, including the roles and responsibilities of the state in managing sovereign lands. In California, the California Legislature as both trustee and trustor over sovereign lands, has enacted additional restrictions on the uses of sovereign lands. These restrictions are contained in the California Constitution, the Public Resources Code and uncodified statutes.

Prevention First Proceedings

Every two years the California State Lands Commission presents its Prevention First symposium. Beginning with the year 2002, proceedings from the symposia have been stored electronically and are now available for on-line review. You may access the proceedings for 2002-2014 by clicking on their respective buttons below. All documents are provided in Adobe Acrobat format only.

Environmental Justice Policy

The Commission adopted an Environmental Justice Policy on October 1, 2002. The purpose of the policy is to ensure that Environmental Justice is part of all Environmental Impact Reports prepared by the Commission, so that it can be an essential consideration in the Commission's approval process.