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Ectopia or Empty Quarter 

by Robert Herold

We aren't yet certain that they are seriously entertaining secession or merely stirring the pot, but as announced the other day, we do know that Republican state senators Bob Morton of Orient and Bob McCaslin of Spokane Valley have proposed legislation to "study the feasibility of splitting the state of Washington into eastern and western halves."

As noted in their press release, they are most concerned that Eastern Washington just isn't getting the representation it deserves. They mention that presently no one from Eastern Washington sits on the state supreme court; not one statewide official, including our U.S. senators, hails from east of the mountains; and that the state legislature is dominated by West Siders. They are also of the opinion that our lifestyles, culture and customs are different -- sufficiently so to justify a divorce.

Morton and McCaslin refer essentially to the historical cleavage between urban and rural regions. They want rural Washington to be better represented, but when they refer to Eastern Washington being "highly rural," if it is population they want represented, they are simply wrong.

(An aside: It's easiest to poke holes in this plan by pointing out, as many have before, that splitting the state would turn us into the economic equivalent of Alabama. Yes, the entire state is powered by the economic engine that is King County, even today, as its economy struggles. But for the purposes of this commentary, I'll look just at this question of urban vs. rural.)

The fact is, if we draw circles around our populated areas, we will find that Eastern Washington, like all of the West, is not rural at all, but predominantly urban. This may come as a giant surprise, but the western United States is the most urbanized region in America. There just aren't all that many folks living out there on the lone prairie.

Eastern Washington residents have as much concern with urban living as do their big-city cousins to the west. So what it is that Morton and McCaslin want to see represented? We are left to suppose they demand better representation not for people, but for economic interests that do business east of the mountains -- agribusiness, barge operations, timber, mining, etc. Prior to 1964, when the Supreme Court handed down its landmark decision, "Reynolds v. Sims," most states dealt with this inequality as the federal government does, through their respective senates. This way, those operating in the less populated areas were represented equally.

But as the court held in "Reynolds," they were actually over-represented. From 1964 on, states have been required to apportion even their senates on the principle of "one man, one vote," a principle that for all intents and purposes made moot the historical reason for state senates.

Considered in this light, we might well opine that the real problem for Morton and McCaslin isn't the urban-rural cleavage at all; instead, I think, they want to go back to the days of 19th-century rural values and beliefs. I refer to all those values that defined life on the lone prairie -- rugged individualism, post-Civil War attitudes about the sanctity of property rights, illusions of independence and, perhaps most important, the assumption that natural resources would never need to be conserved, let alone preserved. The trouble is, these values are a disaster for the kind of urban living now dominating the West.

It follows from this analysis that rather than providing better representation for urban needs east of the mountain, Morton and McCaslin have in mind giving all us East Side urban dwellers just the opposite -- a return to the politics of land baronies.

We need look no further than Spokane to see how this works.

Consider the politics of, say, growth management: It's clear that Spokane faces the same problems of urban sprawl as Seattle and Tacoma. And without the political clout of Seattle and Tacoma, absolutely nothing would have even been done about this emerging problem. The truth is, Spokane's needs and interests are far more in alignment with those over in Seattle and Tacoma than they are with the interests of, say, the more rural counties to the north or west of us.

A few years ago, when pundits, critics, journalists and scholars became momentarily interested in redesigning our states, Joel Garreau wrote a book titled The Nine Nations of North America in which he reduced our 50 states down to nine. Garreau would have agreed with Morton and McCaslin about the need to hive off Eastern Washington, but he wouldn't stop there. Applying the logic used by Morton and McCaslin, Garreau proposed a state west of the mountains running from coastal Alaska, down through Vancouver, through Seattle to Portland, terminating at the Silicon Valley. And the name of this new coastal state? You guessed it, latte lovers: "Ecotopia."

Eastern Washington, argued Garreau, may be culturally and economically distinct from Western Washington; but, it can claim no such distinction from all of interior Alaska, the western half of Canada and what we call "the U.S. Mountain West." Garreau would say that our boosters were too modest about the size of our Inland Empire, if not about Spokane's dominance of it. In any case, he proposed a more descriptive name: "The Empty Quarter."

Has kind of a ring to it, don't you think?

Publication date: 03/13/03

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