My county’s voters turned down a proposal to secede from Oregon and join the state of Idaho in the November 2021 and May 2022 elections. It may seem surprising to most Americans that redrawing state lines has become popular in sizable parts of the Western United States. In fact, this was just the latest in a series of secessionist fantasies to include Douglas County, Oregon, where I’ve lived these past 47 years.
There is something both absurd and sad about the Greater Idaho effort’s attempt to create a lesser Oregon by moving Idaho’s border across the Snake River to include all of Oregon east of the Cascades and the southwestern portion of the state—thereby acquiring a stretch of seacoast answerable to a government whose capital is located 400 sparsely populated miles due east. Yet, given the way that the 19th-century West was divided into territories and states, such notions were inevitable.
Look at a map, preferably one of those grammar school textbook ones with different colors for each state. Compare the shapes of our western states with the eastern ones. On the right-hand side you’ll find squiggly lines representing irregular borders while on the left, west of the Mississippi River, there are straight lines everywhere, an unswerving exercise in Euclidean geometry stretching across hundreds of miles.
The “settling” of the American West (which, of course, was already well-inhabited, despite what a 1493 papal bull once alleged) was done in a hurry. The lines were drawn in far-off places, delineated by pencil and ruler before anyone considered the land’s natural boundaries, such as its mountains and rivers and the nature of its ecosystems and bioregions.
Such a division of vast tracts of land into distinct governments quickly led to efforts to re-draw those boundaries along lines of natural affinities, a process that continues today. As early as the 1850s, the mining camps of Northern California and Southern Oregon longed for a state of Shasta independent of both states. The place where I live has been included in several imaginary and proposed places just since I moved here in 1975: Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia, Cascadia, and, for a brief time in the mid-1980s, something called the Klamath-Siskiyou Bioregion.
Lately, we’ve had a revival of the early 1940’s state of Jefferson trope which used to consist of the counties drained by the Klamath, Rogue, and Umpqua rivers but now extends southward along the Sacramento River Valley as far south as Colusa County. I haven’t moved anywhere in all that time but what has changed is how some people (few of whom actually live here) think of this place that I call home.
For most of the past 40-something years, this has all been just a silly bit of fun, useful perhaps for promoting a sense of regional identity and as a tourist come-on, but in recent years this yearning has taken on a darker, more mean-spirited nature. Six years ago, while I was sitting on a public radio show panel discussion about the renewed state of Jefferson effort, one advocate for secession, a Siskiyou County commissioner, distributed a three-fold brochure outlining the bullet points of their plan. Each point was marked by a drawing of a 30-06 cartridge. The talking points themselves were a list of typical notions in right-wing extremist circles with local control of natural resources by handing over ownership of Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands to county governments chief among them.
While the secessionist movements of the 1970s and 1980s were grounded in hippie-dippy environmentalism, today’s movements are often fueled by strident anti-government ideology. In the case of Greater Idaho, it is a frankly conservative effort born of political frustration in a deeply “red” portion of an overwhelmingly “blue” state. The western portion of Oregon, where 91% of the state’s population lives, has always dominated statewide politics. It is also a movement that is related, in part, to the American Redoubt’s attempt to establish a White Christian survivalist stronghold centered in Idaho but which wants to ultimately include eastern Oregon and eastern Washington and portions of Montana as well.
The proponents of the movement to move the border say that it would lessen tensions in an area that has seen an armed take-over of a federal wildlife refuge and the passage of local measures calling for the seizure of federal lands. The hope of averting a possible civil war has been offered as a reason to vote in favor of these county advisory-ballot measures. The effort may instead become a source of increased resentment as it slowly but inevitably fails.
The obstacles to ever-shifting any state lines are virtually insurmountable. Congress did, it is true, approve the formation of Virginia’s northwestern counties as a separate state of West Virginia, but the Civil War was underway at the time. More recently, the boundary line between the states of North Carolina and South Carolina was redrawn after eighteen years of study and negotiations, the outcome of which left a couple dozen citizens living under a different government. The odds that the government of Oregon would be willing to hand over 62% of its land are likely lower than winning the Powerball lottery. Should the great state of Idaho wish to acquire that land, it would need to pay an estimated $10-$15 billion for Oregon’s state lands and buildings located in a large but sparsely populated region that currently generates less state tax revenue than it receives.
So far, nine of the 16 counties that would be affected have voted in favor of the move, and it will be on the ballots of two more in the November election. Given the difficulties involved, much of the support for the proposal is likely less a matter of any genuine desire to actually secede than it is a way to brandish an up-thrust middle finger aimed at the rest of the state.
Robert Leo Heilman is the author of Overstory: Zero, Real Life in Timber Country. He lives in Myrtle Creek, Oregon.