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Jefferson: A California state of mind?

Two rural Northern California counties are voting today to consider seceding from the state of California, a proposal often linked to the so-called state of Jefferson.

But while that still-mythical state is often described as containing portions of Northern California and Southern Oregon, there's little apparent enthusiasm for the idea on this side of the border.

The idea of cutting ties with Oregon after 155 years and creating a 51st state based on a common interest in rural and natural resources concerns is so complicated that one county commissioner in this region called it "practically impossible."

"I looked into it once, but the state and federal provisions for secession make it practically impossible. It has to be voted on at both levels," said Josephine County Commissioner Simon Hare, adding that the likelihood of those provisions passing is nil.

In California, the quixotic quest for secession has gone on practically since statehood. But the state of Jefferson effort just before World War II is described by current historians largely as a publicity stunt — and one which died quickly when the war began.

Now, whether it's realistic or not, Northern California counties are raising the issue in all seriousness. Del Norte and Tehama counties will vote today on asking county supervisors to join with four other counties in exploring secession. Boards of the four other California counties — Siskiyou, Modoc, Glenn and Yuba — have already approved similar resolutions. Butte County will vote on the issue in a week.

There is no such momentum for secession north of the border in Oregon. While rural counties in Oregon lack the political muscle of counties in the Willamette Valley and Portland area, said Curry County Commissioner Susan Brown, "I don't know if we'd be better off if we seceded."

"Yes, of course, they don't listen," she said of the state leadership. "All the rural counties get outvoted and outnumbered. But is this the best way to get paid attention to?"

Some Jackson County commissioners, including current Commissioner John Rachor, have said the idea of a state of Jefferson is intriguing, but probably not realistic.

"I don't see any advantage in it for us," Rachor said. "We receive much more money from the federal government as part of Oregon than we would as a less-populated state."

The secessionist votes in California, said Rachor, are ways of "expressing frustration by beating the war drum and attempting to get Sacramento to take them more seriously."

Much of the secessionist movement gets its energy from limits imposed on resource use by the Endangered Species Act, but, Rachor noted, any new state would still be subject to federal regulations.

Rachor also pointed out that rural counties on both sides of the border receive more funding from their respective state capitals than they put into the states' coffers.

Beyond that, said Hare, the enmity felt in far Northern California toward Sacramento and the downstate population centers is simply not felt to that degree in Oregon.

"Most of the time, we don't feel heard in Salem and Washington, but we're working on that," Hare said. "The idea of secession will always be there. It will never go away, but, practically speaking, we would still have to deal with all the federal rules."

Klamath County Commissioner Jim Bellet said he'd like to keep his options open and see what transpires with the secessionist movement.

"The advantage of starting a new state would be the ability to take everything everyone has done wrong and correct it," Bellet said, laughing. "It would open freedom of choice. You would get to write a new state constitution from a fresh perspective with a fresh start. It would be fun, and it would be good for the country to watch."

Financially, said Bellet, it would be "real tough" at first but, as time went on, it likely would offer an improved business climate.

Bellet said Klamath County gets along well with state officials, but agrees that rural counties "get ruled" by Portland.

"Someone is always going to feel ignored, and it's unfortunate," said Brown in Curry County. "It would be nice to think of getting some form of government of and by all the people. If it comes up, I'd sure be interested in talking about it, but so far, it has gained no traction. It gets brought up mostly as a joke."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.