A New State of Mind

Secessionist movements are afoot all over the West

Frustrated separatists can agitate all they want to for a state of their own, but if we ever add a star to Old Glory, it's more likely to represent Puerto Rico, American Samoa or Washington, D.C., than North Colorado.

Earlier this month, voters in 11 sparsely populated Colorado counties got a chance to express their distaste for their state government — which is not geographically distant, but culturally a world away in Denver. On their ballots was an option to secede from Colorado.

"We simply want to be left alone to live our lives without a dictatorial central government forcing itself upon us," zealots explained on their website, 51ststate.org. Nonetheless, voters in only five of the 11 counties chose to pursue independence from the Mile High City.

"Leave us alone" is the same argument I've been hearing for the past year while wandering the back roads of Northern California and southern Oregon. This Wild West territory has been talking about carving out its own state since 1854. They want to call it Jefferson — some say in honor of the third president; others say it's for Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy during the Civil War.

"Congress wants to control us," grocery store clerk Ann Hanson told me, the front of her store in Klamath, Calif., festooned with the State of Jefferson seal.

Rick Jones, owner of a general store in Seiad Valley, Calif., added, "All our tax money goes south [to Sacramento] and nothing comes back here."

But that is not the case; more state money flows into Jefferson from Sacramento than the impoverished region pays California in taxes. Even so, it's a safe bet that the 38 million citizens of the rest of California would never vote to lose their water and vacation playground to the restive few in Jefferson, and approval from the rest of a state's voters is needed before a region can secede. Approval is also required from Congress. At this time, it's impossible to imagine a divided Capitol Hill embracing new senators from what would be the red states of North Colorado or Jefferson.

Much of rural America is needy. In Jefferson, contested water rights, endangered fisheries and land-use disputes foment frustration for residents in the midst of a job market devastated by the collapse of the timber industry.

Such secession talk seems healthy. It allows those who feel aggrieved to be heard. State representatives in Salem and Sacramento should pay more attention to the people of Jefferson. At the same time, these movements offer the rest of us a metaphor for our dysfunctional national government. Without compromise, our union cannot hold. But, as Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter to James Madison, "A little rebellion now and then is a good thing. It is a medicine necessary for the sound health of government."♦

University of Oregon journalism professor Peter Laufer is author of The Elusive State of Jefferson. A version of this column first appeared in High Country News (hcn.org).

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