Writers on the Range: The 51st state is an elusive American dream
Writers on the Range
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, Washington, D.C., or even American Samoa, than North Colorado.
This week, 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 urban 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,” statehood 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 last year while I’ve been 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. The frustrated folks want to call it Jefferson — some say in honor of the third president, although others say it’s for Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy during the Civil War.
“Jefferson” rebels famously proclaimed statehood in 1941; at armed roadblocks outside of Yreka, Cal., they foisted a list of their demands on passing motorists. World War II distracted the movement, but it resurges periodically. In September, Siskiyou and Modoc County supervisors voted to secede from California; they’ve invited southern Oregon counties to join them.
“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. The seal sports two x’s symbolizing a double cross against both states’ governments.
In Seiad Valley, Calif., trailer-park owner Bruce Johnson expressed stronger sentiments: “I think it’s a lot closer to bloodshed than anybody in the city ever contemplates.” His beef included frustrations with government control of logging, mining and fishing.
In California’s rural Klamath County, rancher Tom Mallams was elected county commissioner in 2012 on an anti-Endangered Species Act platform. “Big government is continually trying to eliminate our rights,” he said. Rick Jones, owner of a general store in Seiad Valley, 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 to create a new state. At this time, it’s impossible to imagine a divided Capitol Hill embracing two 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. Similar problems plague other locales where secession is the talk of barbershops and coffee shops. Restive areas include northern Minnesota and Wisconsin, west Kansas, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and this latest entrant into the go-it-alone movement, North Colorado.
Such secession talk seems healthy. It allows those who feel aggrieved and alienated to be heard. State representatives in Salem and Sacramento should pay more attention to the needs of the people of Jefferson. At the same time, these incipient statehood movements offer the rest of us a metaphor for our dysfunctional national government. Without compromise, our union cannot hold. But, as Thomas Jefferson instructed us 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.”
So hooray for North Colorado, Jefferson and West Kansas. Raise a glass to Superior, the Upper Peninsula state, Western Maryland and Texlahoma. We need the rebellion talk as long as airing the issues reminds us that when we work together, we work to form a more perfect union.
Peter Laufer is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the James Wallace Chair Professor of Journalism at the University of Oregon and the author of The Elusive State of Jefferson: A Journey through the 51st State.
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