Railroads & Clearcuts

Catellus checkerboards in southern California

Catellus was a real estate spin-off of the combined land grants of the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad and the Southern Pacific Railroad. The Catellus saga is a fine example of the convoluted deals that have emerged from the 19th-century railroad land grant subsidy. Here is a simplified version.

The 1983 merger of the Santa Fe and the Southern Pacific was broken by the U.S. government in 1987, but lots of real estate had been rearranged by then. In 1989, Santa Fe sold 20 percent of its Santa Fe Realty to a partnership made up of JMB Realty and the California Public Employees Retirement System.

In 1990, as Catellus was spun off to Santa Fe shareholders, it owned two million acres of land in 13 states. The Reichmann family's Canadian and U.S. real estate and natural resource conglomerate Olympia & York, which owned 20 percent of Santa Fe, went bankrupt. Some of the Catellus land was sold.

By the end of 1996, the largest single shareholder was the California Public Employees' Retirement System (CALPERS), with 42 percent of the common stock. The Catellus portfolio included 837,000 acres of land.

Catellus arranged a deal to sell 430,000 acres of its 790,000 acres of desert land back to the federal government (for $36 million) and The Wildlands Conservancy (for $16 million). The deal included 86,000 acres within the Mojave National Preserve and 40,000 acres within Joshua Tree National Park. The Wildlands Conservancy had already paid Catellus $3.2 million for 25,000 acres in Joshua Tree, and in 1998, with Catellus threatening to sell land it owned inside the Mojave Preserve, the next deal was pursued. In January 2000, 225,000 acres of the deal were transferred to the U.S. BLM.

In May 2000, it was announced that Catellus would receive another $20 million for another 180,605 acres in the Mojave Desert. About $15 million was from private donations from the Wildlands Conservancy and $5 million were federal funds. The acquisition completes the largest purchase of private land in California history and the largest acquisition from one seller by the BLM.

Altogether, the Wildlands Conservancy and federal government have spent $45 million to acquire 405,000 acres from Catellus Development.

In 2005 Catellus was acquired by ProLogis, which owns and manages industrial facilities in North America, Asia and Europe.

Below is a map of Catellus checkerboards involved in the California deals. (click here for a larger image)