The growth of human populations and their resource needs have stressed the conservation of natural land resources. Many policies and programs have been implemented to address the pressures on land resources and notwithstanding this pressure, significant acquisition of land for conservation has occurred throughout history in the U.S., and internationally. Here we assess the on-the-ground result of the evolution of land use policies in California as a pioneer forerunner, in the form of acquisition of land for conservation (i.e. Open Space), and its impact on the rest of the U.S. and beyond. To this end we describe the timeline and spatial representation of the growth of California's conservation network over the last 150 years, and link it to the history of land use policies. We then assess whether conservation land acquisition has consistently grown through time or occurred in specific decades. About ¼ of the state is now designated Open Space. Fewer and larger areas conserved and acquired at the beginning of the 20th century; the conservation network was complemented with a larger number of smaller sized properties. Despite acquisition of land in every decade, the process was uneven (E = 0.3 for California, E = 0.14 ± 0.08 average for the state's counties), mostly due to the large acquisitions and land set asides in the 1900s, followed by 1930s and 1940s. This process was a result of a comprehensive set of legislation that evolved through time, and resulted from the competing needs for development and conservation. Even with the impressive 174,000 km2 of public lands in California, the future of California's natural infrastructure and natural heritage cannot rely solely on these public lands, nor public agencies and their resources. Critically a future course of land preservation relying on the purchase of new lands - in California and beyond - for conservation is tremendously expensive.