Viewpoints: A new state in Northern California would be an interesting experiment

10/04/2013 12:00 AM

12/11/2013 11:58 AM

No doubt most of you who have read reports about the votes by Siskiyou and Modoc County supervisors to split off from the rest of California think it’s a pretty silly idea.

After all, it has virtually no chance of getting the approval of the California Legislature and the Congress, as required by the U.S. Constitution.

But there are some larger, more important issues lost in the generally derisive commentary I’ve seen so far. That’s nothing new. Those of us who live up here in the Siberia of California are used to being ignored and rarely taken seriously. At least this latest move got your attention.

The fact is that a great many people in the lower part of California seem to think that the state’s northern boundary is somewhere around Redding. I live 50 miles north of that city and, at a recent event in San Francisco, I was introduced as “the guy from Oregon.” There does seem to be a vague notion among better-informed folks that there is a mountainous region in the state far up along Interstate 5. But who really cares when the Sierra is so close at hand?

I live up here in Siskiyou County, which has a population of only 45,000, so we’re used to being overlooked. The movement for a separate state began more than 70 years ago, by folks in far Northern California and southern Oregon who felt they’d been ignored far too long when state funds were being disbursed for roads and other improvements.

Ironically, the current movement is fueled by a feeling that we’re getting too much attention from government, in the form of environmental and firearm regulations, and the push to remove dams along the Klamath River.

My friends in the more urbane, better-educated regions of the state look with disdain on what they perceive as an effort by half-educated libertarian rednecks to remove obstacles to clear-cutting forests and polluting rivers.

The truth, of course, is more nuanced than that. We have places like Mount Shasta City in Siskiyou County and Ashland in southern Oregon that are just as liberal and environmentally oriented as the Bay Area. We also have Yreka, the Siskiyou County seat, that’s probably to the right of Orange County.

Not long ago, for an article in the Redding paper, I interviewed Chris Babcock with the Nature Conservancy, which owns two working ranches just south of Yreka that have been turned into demonstration projects for environmentally responsible ranching: They have placed barbed-wire fences and planted trees along the adjoining Shasta River to help restore riparian vegetation and keep the waters cooler for spawning salmon. Babcock told me that before the Nature Conservancy moved in, some neighboring ranchers had already put these practices in place.

I think it’s safe to say that the 40-year-old environmental movement has had an impact even in these backward regions. To cite one other example, development of recreational trails up here was initially resisted by conservative folks who associated them with tree-hugging Sierra Clubbers. Today, we’re in the midst of a trail-building boom, something embraced across the political spectrum as a boost to tourism and local economies.

In an age when campaign contributions and lobbying by special interests have greatly diminished the average citizen’s ability to impact state and federal policies, there is certainly a case to be made for smaller, regional government. There are a few signs, definitely more low-key and less dramatic than the split-the-state votes, that suggest we’re heading in that direction: Among them: Gov. Jerry Brown’s transfer of prisoners to counties, his recent initiative to transfer funds with no strings attached to struggling school districts, and measures offered in the Legislature to lower voter-majority requirements for funding local libraries, schools, transportation projects, and police and fire services.

I detect in my friends’ scoffing about our split-the-state vote the same kind of elitism that led John Adams and others of the Founding Fathers to equate democracy with rule by a rabble of uninformed voters. Alas, there may be some truth to that notion in the present day. We may indeed be caught in a downward spiral where the informed citizenry so necessary to a working democracy is being eroded by a valid perception that the views and votes of the average citizen don’t count for much anymore. To reverse that trend, perhaps we do need to take bold steps similar to what the Siskiyou and Modoc supervisors are suggesting.

I think it would be an interesting experiment to see what would come out of the mix of Ashland, Yreka, Mount Shasta and my own very politically mixed town of Dunsmuir. Despite the concerns of our rabble-fearing neighbors down south, we would still come under the domain of the federal government. Civil rights would still be in force (except when diluted by the Supreme Court), as would the Endangered Species and Clean Water acts.

Indeed, by taking a step toward smaller, more accessible government we would be affirming our allegiance to a country which, at its inception, launched the boldest experiment in democracy the world had ever seen.

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