Why a Secessionist Movement Is Brewing in California

Supporters of the new state of Jefferson raise serious grievances against the state and federal governments.


Most Californians treat with bemusement the news that the board of supervisors in far-north Siskiyou County voted 4-1 early this month to seek secession from California and revive efforts to create a new state of Jefferson.

But while U.S. flags are unlikely to soon add another star, this rural separatist movement has long been brewing and is based on serious grievances that state and federal officials would be wise to ponder.

Two years ago, I attended the Defend Rural America event at the Siskiyou County fairgrounds in Yreka, where some attendees proudly flew the Jefferson flag. The proposed state's boundaries have varied, but the movement was started in 1941 to combine counties in southern Oregon with some in northern California. The flag features two "Xs" — to signify being double-crossed by Sacramento and Salem.

The earliest Jefferson movement dissipated after the attack on Pearl Harbor. It's hard to call for a national break-up during wartime. But the movement has been a backdrop to debates in those counties ever since. The Jefferson movement was a "publicity gimmick" to lure federal investment in local minerals and logging industries, according to the Oregon Encyclopedia. But locals don't see it as a stunt.

More than 100 people packed the board chambers for the recent vote, according to news reports, with almost all of them supporting the resolution. That wouldn't be a bad turnout in San Diego County, with its 3 million population, let alone in Siskiyou, population 44,000.

Secessionists complain that public policy is driven by the large metropolitan regions, and that urban legislators are constantly attacking their way of life. At the Yreka event in 2011, for instance, eight sheriffs from both states vowed to defy federal rules limiting public access to public lands. Locals decried plans to demolish dams along the Klamath River. They say that no one listens to them.

"This is the beginning of a discussion about having a different set of rules for urban communities and rural communities because our lifestyles are so different," Richard Marshall, president of the Siskiyou Water Users and a Fort Jones resident, told me. "We're having a discussion, not a revolution."

It's a shorter drive from San Diego to El Paso, Texas, than it is from San Diego to Yreka. It's still a four-and-a-half-hour drive to remote and mountainous Yreka from Sacramento, which explains why rural residents want regulations tailored to their unique needs.

Although secession has a conservative bent — with its focus on gun-rights, and complaints about land-use restrictions and oddball priorities in the Capitol — it's not entirely right wing. Marijuana farmers and free spirits in the rural coastal counties, such as Humboldt, have also complained about indifference from far-off officials.

This, obviously, wouldn't be the first time a new state was created in America, a nation which broke off from another country. Yet some editorialists have expressed outrage at this modest act of defiance.

The Sacramento Bee's editorial page, known to champion the causes of California's poor and downtrodden, couldn't muster any sympathy for hard-pressed north-state residents. The vote is a "juvenile stunt," it harumphed, as it used the county's plight (an old population, high poverty rate and dependence on government jobs) as evidence that "seceding would only make Siskiyou's problems worse."

Siskiyou residents say that the county is such a basket case because the government's environmental rules have limited opportunities for logging, farming and fishing. The population would be younger if people could get jobs.

Siskiyou residents say they aren't happy that they depend on government.

Reacting to such big-city criticism, the Chico Enterprise-Record, in Butte County, reminded readers that the secession vote is about opposing oppressive regulations, skewed priorities and resource grabs that emanate from "detached" Sacramento: "The folks in Siskiyou County just got tired of outsiders telling them what they could and couldn't do." The movement, it argued, is designed to get government officials to "listen up."

One shouldn't be optimistic about any new listening skills given that rural residents can't match the political muscle of the state's largest special-interest groups. So the Jefferson idea probably won't go far, but the issues that animate it won't go away, either.