The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1974, Volume 20, Number 4

Book Reviews

David J. Weber, Book Review Editor


Politics of Land, Ralph Nader’s Study Group Report on Land Use in California. By Robert C. Fellmeth, Project Director. New York: Grossman Publishers, 1973. Appendices. Index. Notes. 715 pages. $15.00.

Reviewed by David A. Williams, Professor of History, California State University, Long Beach and author of David C. Broderick, A Political Portrait, co-author of California, A History of the Golden State.

A number of years ago, when Ralph Nader first burst on the public scene as a vehement spokesman for the modern day muckrakers there were many people who thought that his day in the sun would be brief. But from that time to this, he has shown little evidence that he and his commitments are fading. On the contrary, Ralph Nader has built a veritable conglomerate of reform activities which regularly produce reports and ongoing programs designed to bring abut the changes and reforms which he and his associates think desirable. The work proceeds under the general direction of Nader’s Center for Study of Responsive Law, initially funded by a judgment won by Nader against a corporate giant which was the target of one of his early studies. In the typical operation a staff is assembled and directed to focus on a specific problem or topic. The group assigned usually produces a written report, which more often than not is published by the Center. Earnings from such publications coupled with contributions by sympathetic supporters and organizations provide for an ongoing reform program. By now the list of publications exceeds a dozen titles. Typical of this list is Politics of Land, Ralph Nader’s Study Group Report on Land Use in California.

This study was directed by Attorney Robert C. Fellmeth, a long-time Nader associate, who supervised a staff of almost forty people (assisted by numerous volunteers who contributed bits and pieces of information) which worked more than a year. Specialists in law, land economics, conservation, ecology, biology, were represented in the group assembled, and they proceeded to do the things which researchers traditionally do as they looked into the relationships between political power and land ownership and use. They produced a 1200 page report which was subsequently released by the Center and eventually published with an “Afterword” by Fellmeth in which he commented rather critically on the reaction of the California media to the report.

The book is divided into two major sections, the first entitled “Resources”, the second “Development.” Each is divided into chapters which bear such descriptive labels as, “Who Owns California?”, “Power Politics”, and “The General Overseers.” The appendices, notes and Index comprise a substantial two hundred and two pages and provide a rather impressive body of evidence that Dr. Fellmeth and his staff did their homework. Among the items included in the appendices is a list of major landowners and holdings in California which provides in broad strokes an illuminating picture of the big land holders in the state. Another tabulation reveals the connections between lending institutions and land ownership, a third provides biographical profiles of individuals who staff the State Board of Agriculture and still another lists incidents where wildlife were killed as a result of pollution.

The point in this diverse mass of information is to buttress the case which the staff makes. In essence it is alleged that “public and private power colludes against the unorganized” general citizenry of California and that private interests, especially the land interests of California “to a significant extent, have bought, intimidated, compromised, and supplied key officials in state and local governments to the point where these interests govern the governors.”

How well Fellmeth and his group have proved their case is something which every reader will have to decide, although there should be little disagreement with the proposition that there is much food for thought in these pages. Informed Californians have long known of specific instances which tend to substantiate their views. As Mr. Fellmeth points out in his “Afterword” on the media treatment of the report, it has been criticized, but usually in nit-picking comments which are unworthy of the critics. I believe a substantial criticism could be made by pointing out the lack of historical perspective in the volume, perhaps a reflection of the fact that no historians were involved in the investigation. And it seems reflective of that same lack of historical perspective that an earlier investigator who worked over similar ground (Henry George, Progress and Poverty, 1879), is not mentioned in the book.

But having said that much, one must in fairness point out that Fellmeth and his associates have produced a substantial piece of research and their findings should not be dismissed by ignoring them or by burying them in carping criticisms. Every observer of the modern California scene should delve into them.