Oregon’s Cascade mountain range represents more than just a topographic barrier in the politically divided state.
On the west side of the mountains is the 675-square-mile Willamette Valley, home to Oregon’s largest cities — Portland, Salem and Eugene — and 70 percent of the state’s population. Nearly all of Oregon’s Democratic state representatives, who make up about 60 percent of the statehouse, hail from west of the mountains.
On the east side of the Cascade range stretches hundreds of miles of desert, where the population is more sparse, and farmland dominates the landscape as well as the way of life. Eastern Oregon is mostly rural, and the majority of its residents are politically conservative. Those political leanings are shared by a majority of residents in a few more rural counties along the coast south of Eugene.
About 260 miles east of the mountains is another barrier, one less tangible but more consequential: the Oregon-Idaho border. On the west side of that barrier is a state that hasn’t voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 1984. On the east side is a state that hasn’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1964.
Many Oregonians identify, culturally and politically, with Idahoans more than their fellow statesmen — so much so that a small revolution to secede is underway.
“They don’t have a tendency to listen to people in rural Oregon and what our policies are,” said Mike McCarter, of La Pine, Oregon, a small city 30 miles southwest of trendy Bend on the eastern edge of the Cascades. That’s why he hopes to “move the border this way and join you folks in Idaho.”
McCarter is fed up with the “urban policies” that favor the highly populated western part of Oregon.
He’s leading a separatist movement to cede Oregon’s rural counties to Idaho. McCarter, president and lead petitioner of Move Oregon’s Borders for a Greater Idaho, drew a line that starts at the mouth of the Deschutes River on the northern border and follows the eastern edge of the Cascades, down to La Pine, then cuts west to the coast. The border also includes a rural section of northern California, which might also benefit from joining “Greater Idaho.”
The new border does not include Bend, a haven for outdoor activities, because “it’s quite a revenue-generating city” and the state likely wouldn’t let it go, McCarter said.
A Facebook account for the movement recently posted a meme that aptly illustrates the feelings of its followers. It shows two people on a tandem bicycle, but each side of the bike is facing the opposite direction. One person is labeled rural Oregon, the other is Willamette Valley voters, and the bike is “Oregon government.” Each pedaling in opposite directions; the cyclists, and Oregon legislators, aren’t going anywhere.
Issues such as gun laws and taxes have divided Oregonians for years. Other issues, such as homelessness, impact urban areas more than rural.
Last May, differences in opinion over a bill that would increase taxes on businesses to benefit public education ended in a walkout as conservative lawmakers refused to vote. The legislators eventually returned, and the bill passed.
The following month, another walkout occurred, this time over a bill that would institute a carbon tax, forcing drivers to buy allowances to cover a portion of their greenhouse gas emissions. Republicans opposed the bill because it would disproportionately impact rural residents, who travel longer distances, drive less fuel-efficient vehicles and have fewer public transit options, The Oregonian reported. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown enlisted state police to round up the legislators.
Democratic lawmakers, and Brown, are “diametrically opposed” to the way of life of Oregon conservatives, said Wells Carbaugh, 27, a former Willamette Valley resident who moved to Boise in 2014.
A second photo on the Facebook meme shows two cyclists riding happily in the same direction on a tandem bike. One person is labeled Idaho, the other is rural Oregon and northern California, and the bike is “Greater Idaho Government.”
“We sincerely want to have the benefits and the conservative thinking of Idaho governing us,” McCarter said. “If we don’t want to be ‘ruled’ by the Oregon Legislature, then let’s join up with like-minded people.”
In 1863, what is now West Virginia seceded from Virginia and became its own state. That was the last time a U.S. state has been successfully partitioned, although recent attempts have been made. In Georgia, rural counties south of Atlanta have proposed splitting off and forming a separate state. Metropolitan centers in southern Florida have proposed splitting off from their more conservative counterparts in the north.
“There are people who think it’s a crackpot idea,” McCarter said. “I’ve been called a knuckle-dragger and a crackpot and an old, white guy.”
McCarter admits the idea is a difficult sell but contends that if rural Oregonians can have a say in how they’re governed, it’s worth the effort.
“When in our lifetime would we ever have an opportunity to be a part of a movement to make the lives better for thousands of people?” he said.
The movement will have to overcome significant legal hurdles. Nineteen Oregon counties are within McCarter’s proposed Greater Idaho border, and volunteers are organizing a series of county-level ballot initiatives. Move Oregon’s Borders initially planned to organize a ballot initiative for the November statewide election, but the novel coronavirus has put a hold on that.
County initiatives are still a go, and four counties — Grant, Douglas, Josephine and Umatilla — have approved petitions. Last month, Move Oregon’s Borders hosted a rally in Roseburg, Oregon, which about 500 people attended.
Seven county governments so far have rejected a petition: Baker, Coos, Gilliam, Harney, Union, Wallowa and Wheeler.
If counties choose to secede from Oregon and join Idaho, the move would have to be approved by both state governments and the U.S. Congress.
Idaho Gov. Brad Little didn’t dismiss the idea when asked about it on the show “Fox & Friends” in February.
“I understand they’re looking at Idaho fondly because of our regulatory atmosphere, our values,” Little said. “That doesn’t surprise me one bit.”
Little said there would be “governmental hurdles” and “legal hurdles” before the idea could come to fruition.
Followers of Move Oregon’s Borders, who are active on both sides of the dividing line, claim it’s a win-win for both states.
Carbaugh is volunteering with Move Oregon’s Borders to petition in Oregon’s easternmost counties. He said, if the eastern counties seceded, the left-leaning Oregon Legislature could pass laws that are often blocked by the conservative minority. Congressional seats in eastern Oregon are already held by Republicans, he said.
“There’s no political disadvantage to letting these counties go,” Carbough said. “It’s their culture in the Willamette Valley, and if they want to pass those bills, more power to them. They have a right to representation, too.”
Idaho would gain more than a million new residents, and “economically, we would have a humongous boost,” Carbaugh said, with the addition of farmland and a deep water trading port at Coos Bay on the southwestern Oregon coast — Coos County has since rejected an initiative proposal.
Carbough moved to Boise from the Willamette Valley in his early 20s.
“I’m one of the Oregon transplants, the refugees,” he said. “I saw things happening in the legislature that I didn’t like, and I figured, ‘Why not?’”
Carbough said he “absolutely loves” living in Idaho.
“I agree with a lot of what my representatives in Congress, both state and federal, are saying,” he said. “It’s more aligned with the lifestyle I grew up with than the lifestyle in the southern Willamette Valley.”
McCarter said he considered moving to Idaho, and has friends who hopped the border. Many Oregonians can’t pick up and move, especially if their livelihood is tied to the land, a regional trade or local clients. Other people, like McCarter, love where they live.
“I have a river right across the street from me, trees all around, snow-capped mountains,” he said. “Whether you call it Oregon or Idaho or Montana, it’s basically about freedom, it’s not about a name.”
Precedent shows Move Oregon’s Borders for a Greater Idaho likely will fail, and McCarter accepts that. If lawmakers start to pay attention to rural concerns, that’s a success for the movement.
“We’re not going to give up fighting to get representatives elected in Oregon to balance the situation out and to turn the tide,” McCarter said. “It’s not a ‘do or die’ situation; we’re going to keep fighting on both fronts to get rural Oregon heard.”