Oregon’s Rural-Urban Divide Sparks Talk of Secession
ACROSS THE COUNTRY
Conservatives have approved a series of ballot measures in pursuit of an improbable plan to redraw the state’s border. We spent time in the region under dispute to see what the debate says about the country’s divisions.
WHY WE’RE HERE
We’re exploring how America defines itself one place at a time. Residents in eastern Oregon say they are tired of being ruled by more liberal parts of the state.
By Mike Baker and Hilary Swift
Photographs by Hilary Swift
COVE, Ore. — Corey Cook still holds a fondness for her days living in Portland, where the downtown pubs and riverfront cherry blossoms made her proud to call the Rose City home during her 20s.
But as she started growing wary of the metro area’s congestion and liberal politics, she moved to the suburbs, then the exurbs, before heading east, eventually escaping Portland’s sphere of influence on the other side of the Cascade Mountains in 2017. But even here, where she now runs a Christian camp amid the foothill pines overlooking the Grande Ronde Valley, she cannot help but notice how the values of western Oregon are held over the eastern part of the state by way of laws making guns less accessible and abortions more accessible.
Unwilling to move east into Idaho, farther from her family, Ms. Cook, 52, now wonders if redrawing the state maps could instead bring Idaho’s values to her.
“Oregon is not a unified state to me anymore,” she said. “To say that I’m an Oregonian is a geographic truth, but it doesn’t really have meaning to me the way that it did before I lived in eastern Oregon.”
The broad sense of estrangement felt across rural Oregon has led conservatives in recent years to pursue a scrupulous strategy to open a theoretical escape hatch, gathering thousands of signatures for a series of ballot measures that have now passed in 11 counties. Those measures require regular meetings to discuss the idea of secession. In those places, including Union County, Ms. Cook’s new home, county commissioners in rooms adorned by Oregon flags and maps are now obligated to talk about whether it would one day make sense to be part of Idaho.
The “Greater Idaho” movement joins a long history of U.S. defection struggles. In California, for example, there have been more than 200 attempts over the years to break up the state. Greater Idaho sees its solution as more simple — a shift in an existing border that would claim the entire eastern half of Oregon without creating an entirely new state. Despite being a political long shot, the sustained and growing interest from residents in the area and attention from politicians in Idaho have illustrated how much the state is already divided in spirit.
“It’s got worse over the years,” said John Lively, a Democratic state representative who grew up in one of the counties considering the secession plan. “It’s really reflective of the divide we have in our country.”
Mr. Lively has met with Greater Idaho leaders, saying that while he does not support their effort, the movement has followed the appropriate channels and opened up an opportunity for western Oregonians to take notice of why people on the other side of the state have grown so disaffected.
Oregon’s culture and politics have long been defined by east-west, rural-urban divides, with the Cascade Mountains standing like a curtain separating two distinct halves of the state.
The western is side rainier and denser in population, home to the state’s major universities and largest employers. The eastern side has high deserts and vast skies and a more scattered population that recognizes a decades-long decline in conservative clout.
A Republican has not been elected governor in 40 years.
With the Idaho efforts continuing to build, we spent time recently visiting with people in eastern Oregon, traveling through grass-seed farms and snow-packed mountains to hear local residents express passionate and often conflicting views about how to best win representation in the halls of government.
Last month, taking notice of the percolating chatter on the other side of the border, Idaho’s state representatives approved a measure to initiate formal discussions with Oregon over whether and how to redraw a state boundary that spans some 300 miles. Oregon lawmakers have so far not answered the call.
To some residents in eastern Oregon, the secession movement has been cathartic, a sort of relief valve for decades of boiling frustrations with government in a region that has in the distant and not-too-distant past hosted its share of anti-government violence.
To others, the secession effort has felt quixotic, or even idiotic. Success would require passage through the state legislatures in both states and in Congress, requiring the Democrats who currently control broad political power at the Capitol in Salem, Ore., to get onboard with the idea of giving up half the state to a neighbor that does not share their values. Such a shift would leave others in the region more vulnerable, including the Klamath Tribes, where there are fears that a switch to Idaho would undermine efforts to fight for environmental protections on their ancestral lands.
Contrasts are part of eastern Oregon’s past and present. Here, sagebrush flatlands are corralled by mountain peaks that approach 10,000 feet high, and desert terrains get buried in winter snow.
Communities longing for the robust timber industry of decades prior also embrace the pristine forests that draw people to a growing eco-tourism economy.
In Wallowa County, which will vote in May whether to become the 12th county to join the movement, James Nash understands the frustration of the people around him.
In his community, he helps operate a cattle ranch that has been in his family for six generations.
A Marine Corps veteran who helps develop products for the hunting industry, Mr. Nash makes visits to the grocery store that can mean hours of serendipitous conversation with every person he sees.
Mr. Nash, 36, has watched eastern Oregon’s growing frustration with government policies that alter the region’s way of life. Limits on logging contributed to a steep decline in the sprawling timber industry, leading to mill closures and mass layoffs. “Eastern Oregon largely gets treated as western Oregon’s playground,” he said.
Mr. Nash plans to vote to advance the secession debate, though he does not support actual implementation. He fears that a switch to Idaho would bring its own set of complications.
“I don’t think there is a historical precedent to say ‘this is going to work,’” Mr. Nash said. “I’d just rather we figure out how to restore Oregon to a better place.”
Redrawing the map would require much more than fresh cartography. Logistical challenges grow more thorny with each new question: Would people in eastern Oregon be ready to embrace a sales tax? How would Idaho, which bans legal marijuana, manage eastern Oregon’s thriving weed industry? How would the states transition eastern Oregon’s state employees, with some benefits already earned, to a new retirement system with different rules and compensation?
Barbara Dee Ehardt, an Idaho Republican state representative who sponsored a resolution to invite cross-state talks, said she saw benefits for conservatives in Idaho. Among them, she said, a border shifting westward would move legal marijuana and legal abortions farther from the reach of people in her state.
Oregon’s troubled history looms over the debate.
A century ago, the state became a haven for Ku Klux Klan members.
And modern extremist groups have harnessed lingering grievances about a changing culture or a government incompatible with their own aims.
Leading the Greater Idaho movement is Mike McCarter, 75, a resident of La Pine worked for 30 years in the state’s nursery industry and currently teaches classes on concealed handguns and shooting, and recently acquired an Idaho flag for his home.
Mr. McCarter said in an interview that in the process of spreading his message, he has spoken with the People’s Rights group, which is led by Ammon Bundy. In 2016, Mr. Bundy started an armed takeover of a wildlife refuge in Harney County, which has voted to join the Oregon secession movement.
But Mr. McCarter said that he does not align with the group’s tactics, adding that he wants his effort to provide an outlet for people to express their frustrations through peaceful means.
“We are not looking at the civil disobedience way,” he said.
State boundaries, he argued, were set with the idea of organizing like-minded people and can be adjusted to conform with evolving communities, as when divisions between the eastern and western parts of Virginia led to the creation of West Virginia.
Tell Us About Where You Live
“Even though people can say the odds are still way against it — and they probably are — it’s still bringing the issue to the surface,” Mr. McCarter said.
At a gathering inside a wood-paneled room in Union County last month, county commissioners sat before folding tables, next to an Oregon state flag, listening to testimony from constituents.
It was one of a series of meetings held over the last few years to discuss the movement.
One person rose to complain about mail-voting, homelessness and “anarchy in Portland.” Another person murmured that Oregon should absorb more of Idaho. And another person, bringing a map of his own, proposed to break up Idaho and divvy up the territory among neighboring states.
On their own, the county commissioners have little power to alter Oregon’s state lines, but supporters of the Greater Idaho movement have continued to put pressure on them, in hopes they will put pressure on state lawmakers. At the meeting last month, the activists urged the commissioners to formally notify their state lawmakers that local citizens had voted to engage in the idea.
The commissioners agreed, approving the message unanimously.
“I do share the frustrations of the people that are wanting to do it,” Donna Beverage, one of the commissioners, said after the meeting. “I just don’t know how difficult it is going to be. But at the same time, when people are frustrated, we can fight for change.”
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