California's grumpy secessionists of the far north
They believe people in the south are holding them back, and many of them would like to combine with southern Oregonians to form a 51st state, which they would call Jefferson.
A sign proclaiming Jefferson "the 51st State" is seen at Yreka's Palace Barber Shop in Yreka, Calif. (Los Angeles Times /November 19, 2013)
In case you can't hear the rumblings down there in the metropolis, residents in the far northern part of the state aren't happy. They believe you people in the south are holding them back, and many of them would like to combine with southern Oregonians to form a 51st state, which they would call Jefferson.
Over the last year, wandering Jefferson's back roads while researching a book, I listened to its citizens' complaints and ideas. Many of their grievances are understandable. With the logging, fishing and mining industries already devastated by both over-exploitation and regulation, the Great Recession hit the region especially hard. Unemployment and underemployment are endemic. More than once I heard from would-be Jeffersonians the lament, "Our biggest export is our children."
What Del Norte County Sheriff Dean Wilson told me was typical. He believes that the federal government could be forced to turn over public lands it administers to the new state, which could then monetize its timber stands, mineral wealth and fisheries. "We could create a state that tries to be strongly independent of federal dollars, and based on individual freedom, individual liberty and individual responsibility."
The most frequent refrain I heard was that the southern part of the state inhibits the ability of northerners to solve their problems effectively. And it is that sentiment that fuels the cries for secession, which was recently endorsed by the Siskiyou Board of Supervisors by a vote of 4 to 1.
Putting aside the unlikelihood of secession — something both the Legislature and Congress would have to approve — would separation be good for the sparsely populated north? According to figures from the California Department of Finance, the region takes in $20 million or so more from the state each year than it contributes.
But despite evidence to the contrary, many northern residents firmly believe they'd be better off without the rest of the state. Rick Jones, owner of the general store in Seiad Valley, insisted when we talked, "All our tax money goes south [to Sacramento] and nothing comes back here."
Planning for a state of Jefferson dates to the early 1940s, when Mayor Gilbert Gable of Port Orford, Ore., generated nationwide attention by threatening secession while seeking state funds to build roads to better exploit Jefferson's natural resources. San Francisco Chronicle reporter Stanton Delaplane's front-page dispatches from the seceding "state" were filled with imaginative prose that provided a welcome relief for readers weary of war talk. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his efforts.
The idea hasn't died, in part, because the Jefferson statehood tale appeals to a fantasy Westerners embrace: We're rugged individualists who like to go it alone.
The impediment to Jefferson's birth is not only that the 38 million Californians in the rest of the state never would tolerate the handful in Jefferson, with its precious water and pristine wilderness playgrounds, seceding. Statehood would also result in two new U.S. senators from what probably would be a red state with a smaller population than Glendale. That's a change in the map Democrats in Congress and in the California and Oregon legislatures never would embrace.
The secessionists, though, have come to believe their own propaganda that a state is possible. They lose sight of the political and economic realities, instead debating what should be the new state's capital, Crescent City or Yreka (or maybe somewhere as far south as Redding).
Some secession talk is healthy. It allows those who feel aggrieved and alienated to be heard. And it might get Sacramento to pay more attention to Jefferson's needs. 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."
What we don't need, however, at a time when the country remains harshly divided, is to foment discord by encouraging the impossible. So let's listen to the complaints from the north and help turn the quixotic statehood movement into a flourishing tourist attraction.
Jefferson is a mundane name for a state. I propose the rebels instead call their place Garbo, a name guaranteed to grab headlines around the world. Imagine the intrigue inherent in places with names like Ashland, Garbo, and Yreka, Garbo, and — especially — Eureka, Garbo. And the name would be appropriate too. Once she retired from acting, Greta Garbo became famous for being enigmatic and private, and for wanting to be left alone. Wouldn't her name be an ideal choice for a state that insists it just wants to be left alone?
Peter Laufer is a professor of journalism at the University of Oregon and author of "The Elusive State of Jefferson: A Journey Through the 51st State."