Oregon’s Rural-Urban Divide Sparks Talk of Secession

Conservatives passed a series of ballot measures in pursuit of an unlikely plan to redraw the state’s border. We spent some time in the disputed region to see what the debate says about the divisions in the country.


We are exploring how America defines itself one place at a time. Eastern Oregonians say they are tired of being ruled by more liberal parts of the state.

March 18, 2023

COVE, Ore. — Corey Cook is still fond of her days living in Portland, where downtown pubs and riverfront cherry blossoms made her proud to call Rose City home when she was 20.

But as he grew wary of metropolitan area congestion and liberal politics, he moved to the suburbs, then the suburbs, before heading east, eventually escaping Portland’s sphere of influence to the other side of the Cascade Mountains in 2017. But even here, where he now runs a Christian camp amid the pines at the foothills overlooking the Grande Ronde Valley, he can’t help but notice how western Oregon values ​​linger over the top. east of the state through laws that make guns less accessible and abortions more accessible.

Unwilling to move to eastern Idaho, farther from her family, Ms. Cook, 52, now wonders if redrawing the state’s maps might bring back Idaho’s values.

“Oregon is no longer a unified state to me,” he said. “Saying I’m from Oregon is a geographic truth, but it really doesn’t have the same meaning to me as it did before I lived in eastern Oregon.”

The widespread sense of estrangement felt in rural Oregon has led conservatives in recent years to pursue a scrupulous strategy of opening a theoretical escape hatch, gathering thousands of signatures for a series of ballot measures that have now been approved 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 festooned with Oregon flags and maps are now forced to talk about whether it would ever make sense to be part of Idaho.

The “Greater Idaho” movement joins a long history of fighting desertion in the United States. In California, for example, there have been more than 200 attempts over the years to divide the state. Greater Idaho sees its solution as simpler: a change to 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 of residents in the area and the attention of politicians in Idaho have illustrated how much the state is already divided in spirit.

“It’s gotten worse over the years,” said John Lively, a Democratic state representative who grew up in one of the counties considering secession. “It really reflects the division that we have in our country.”

Mr. Lively met with leaders from Greater Idaho and said that while he does not support their effort, the movement has gone through the proper channels and has opened up an opportunity for Western Oregonians to realize why people across the state have grown. so unhappy.

Last month, noticing the chatter seeping across the border, Idaho state representatives approved a measure to start formal discussions with Oregon on whether and how to redraw a state line that extends about 300 miles. Oregon lawmakers have so far not responded to the call.

For some eastern Oregonians, the secession movement has been cathartic, a sort of relief valve for decades of seething frustrations with the government in a region that in the distant and not-so-distant past has been home to its share of violence. antigovernment.

For others, the secession effort has felt quixotic, or even idiotic. Success would require approval by state legislatures in both states and in Congress, requiring Democrats who currently control broad political power on Capitol Hill in Salem, Oregon, to buy into the idea of ​​ceding half the state to a neighbor who does not share your values. Such a move would leave others in the region more vulnerable, including the Klamath tribes, where it is feared that a move to Idaho would undermine efforts to fight for environmental protection on their ancestral lands.

A Marine Corps veteran who helps develop products for the hunting industry, Mr. Nash makes grocery store visits that can mean hours of casual conversation with every person he sees.

Mr. Nash, 36, has watched eastern Oregon’s growing frustration with government policies that are disrupting the region’s way of life. The logging limits contributed to a sharp decline in the expanding logging industry, leading to plant closures and mass layoffs. “Eastern Oregon is very much treated like the playground of western Oregon,” he said.

Mr Nash plans to vote to advance the secession debate, although he does not support actual implementation. He fears that a move to Idaho would bring its own set of complications.

“I don’t think there’s historical precedent for saying ‘this is going to work,’” Nash said. “I would rather we figure out how to restore Oregon to a better place.”

Redrawing the map would require much more than new cartography. The logistical challenges grow thornier with each new question: Would people in eastern Oregon be ready to adopt a sales tax? How would Idaho, which prohibits legal marijuana, handle the thriving marijuana industry in eastern Oregon? How would states transition eastern Oregon state employees, with some benefits already earned, to a new retirement system with different rules and compensation?

Barbara Dee Ehardt, a Republican state representative from Idaho who sponsored a resolution to invite interstate talks, said she saw benefits for conservatives in Idaho. Between them, she said, a border moving west would keep legal marijuana and legal abortions out of the reach of people in her state.

Leading the Greater Idaho movement is Mike McCarter, 75, a La Pine resident who worked for 30 years in the state’s nursery industry and currently teaches classes on concealed firearms and shooting, and recently purchased a Idaho for your home.

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, Bundy initiated an armed takeover of a wildlife refuge in Harney County, which he voted to join the Oregon secession movement.

But McCarter said he doesn’t align with the group’s tactics, adding that he wants his effort to provide an outlet for people to vent their frustrations through peaceful means.

“We are not seeing the path of civil disobedience,” he said.

State lines, he argued, were established with the idea of ​​organizing like-minded people and can be adjusted to accommodate evolving communities, such as when the divisions between eastern and western Virginia led to the creation of West Virginia.

“Even though people can say the odds are still very against, and probably are, it’s still bringing the issue to light,” McCarter said.

On their own, county commissioners have little power to alter Oregon’s state lines, but supporters of the Greater Idaho movement have continued to lobby them, hoping they will put pressure on state legislators. At last month’s meeting, the activists urged commissioners to formally notify state legislators that local citizens had voted to participate in the idea.

The commissioners agreed, approving the message unanimously.

“I share the frustrations of people who want to do it,” Donna Beverage, one of the commissioners, said after the meeting. “I just don’t know how hard it’s going to be. But at the same time, when people are frustrated, we can fight for change.”