Curious Northwest

Far-fetched as they might seem, secession movements are thriving in the NW

By Anna Griffin (OPB)
March 23, 2017 2:30 p.m.

Back in 1941, a group of ranchers, miners and loggers near the Oregon-California border staged a small political rebellion.


They elected their own governor, selected a state capital and changed the state line signs to welcome travelers to the State of Jefferson.

The Yreka Rebellion was mostly a public relations stunt, and it died quickly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. But that Northwest spirit of wanting to break away lives on.

"It doesn’t matter what we think about anything," said Mark Baird, the spokesman for today's State of Jefferson movement, an attempt by people in 21 Northern California counties to form their own state. "We can’t get representation on any issues. This is the only way for us to actually have our votes matter and our voices heard."

Baird’s group bills itself as the spiritual children of the Yreka Rebellion, but the Pacific Northwest is actually home to at least four different ongoing secession or breakaway movements. One overarching State of Jeffersonian theme connects them: a sense of disenfranchisement.

Baird notes that his state senator represents 11 counties, while Los Angeles County has 11 senators.

"This is not a partisan issue. It's just fundamentally unfair," he said.

Across the state line in Oregon, rancher Ken Parsons has a similar complaint: "Urban areas dominate rural areas."

For several years now, the La Grande farmer been pushing legislators and civic leaders in Eastern Oregon — and to a lesser extent, Washington — to join Idaho instead.

His point: Urban progressives in Portland, Eugene and other cities west of the Cascades have all the power in state government. And they do not understand the impact their decisions might have on rural Oregon. Take the Oregon legislature’s decision last year to gradually increase the minimum wage:

"Let’s just say, for example, I hire a college student during the summer months to move my irrigation lines. Now I have urban people telling me I have to pay them $15," he said. "Well, I’m a farmer. I can’t tell whoever buys my wheat, ‘Gee, I got to raise the price of my wheat guys. I’m really sorry.’"

Activists on the other side of the political aisle have their own concerns about representation — and renewed momentum to break away. The election of President Donald Trump gave new life to calls for California to exit the United States and hashtags urging Oregon and Washington to do the same.

It also prompted higher interest in the so-called Cascadia movement.


"On election night, we had 100,000 hits to our website, which is a very large spike for us. And we sold out of flags — which we thought we’d be stocked to 2017 — that day," said Brandon Letsinger, the founder of the Seattle-based nonprofit Cascadia Now.

A patch showing the flag of Cascadia

A patch showing the flag of Cascadia

Kirill Ignatyev / Flickr

The Cascadia movement promotes the idea of a bioregion covering the watersheds of the Columbia, Fraser and Snake rivers. Some Cascadia advocates dream of a new nation that could stretch as far north as southern Alaska and as far south as Northern California.

Letsinger’s group doesn’t promote secession, but it does preach the power of environmental regionalism.

"When we talk about Cascadia, what it really means is self-determination and letting the community decide," he said. "It's about ensuring that the people impacted by decisions about their surrounding environment have a role in making them."

Although their politics are quite different, that's the same basic thing advocates of other, rural secession efforts they say they want. In that sense, these movements aren’t just about Trump — or Govs. Kate Brown, Jerry Brown and Jay Inslee. Maybe it’s a question of geography: They all involve people who live a long way from the seats of state or federal government. Maybe it’s a lingering frontier mentality — leave me alone and let me live my life in peace.

"There are a lot of values that are very culturally distinct to our region, that really come from the people who move here, why they come," Letsinger said. "It’s kind of like a progressive libertarianism."

One more thing these disparate movements share: a very low chance of succeeding.

The U.S. Constitution does lay out a way to create a new state or ditch the one you’re currently in for another. To start, you need the approval of all the state legislatures involved and Congress. So far, those folks in Eastern Oregon who want to join Idaho have found legislators willing to submit bills allowing them to break away. But they have nowhere near enough support to actually make it happen.

Rancher Ken Parsons has opted to try leaving Oregon for Idaho because he’s simply not sure how the logistics — and the finances — of forming a new state would work.

Related: Oregon Historical Photo: State of Jefferson

"Gee, how do you start a state from zero? Where do you get the money and the time and the people to start a legislature, start a governor, start a highway department, state police, welfare?" he said. "It would be an impossible task."

The Constitution doesn’t really have a clear exit clause for states or regions that want to leave the United States altogether. We’re different than, say, the European Union that way.

Sanford Levinson, a law professor at the University of Texas, compares the founding of the United States to a marriage. Those were fragile days for the young union. Why borrow trouble by even thinking about divorce?

“It’s like signing a prenuptial agreement; there’s a reason most couples don’t [do] it,” Levinson said. “You’re in love; you’re excited. You don’t want to spend a lot of time thinking about all the ways it could go wrong.”

Some legal scholars — and many history students — say the debate over secession ended at Appomattox Court House. Levinson doesn’t go quite that far. Instead, he says secession in all its forms is, really, more a political issue than a legal one. For example, certain elected officials in Washington D.C. might not be all that sad to say goodbye to California, but would they really be willing to give up the sixth largest economy in the world?

That’s going to be a much harder political sell than just changing the signs at the state line.