Siskiyou County supervisors voted Tuesday to move toward seceding from California and looking to form a new state with neighboring counties in California and Oregon.
Crazy as it sounds, it makes a kind of sense in rural California.
Not that it’s time to start thinking about hiring a new Betsy Ross to sew a 51st star on the U.S. flag or anything like that. Folks in the state’s northernmost regions have been talking about putting together their new state of Jefferson since the 1940s and 70 years later all they have to show for it are a few green “double X” state flags, some T-shirts for sale and a website, www.jeffersonstate.com.
But in a state where the growing urban areas hold all the political clout, secession, unlikely as it is to ever happen, probably looks to be the only hope for the remaining outposts of rural California to have any say over their own future.
It wasn’t that many years ago when most Californians had a link to the farms, ranches, streams and forests that made up a huge chunk of the state. Apricot and plum orchards filled Silicon Valley, oranges were grown in Orange County and pastureland and row crops sprawled over land now given to housing developments.
Plenty of people lived in big cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego, but many of them had grandparents or other relatives who farmed, logged, fished or hunted.
It’s a different story today. A farmer or rancher is a figure out of fantasy for most young people growing up in California today. Their concerns might as well be those of men from Mars to all too many politicians.
In Siskiyou, Trinity or Modoc counties, for example, a mountain lion that kills sheep or calves is predator taking money out of a rancher’s pocket. But to voters in Oakland or Long Beach, they’re glorious animals that must be protected, regardless of the cost — to someone else.
Environmentalists push for new restrictions on logging and fishing, often with little or no concern for the people who make their living in those industries. Every year, anti-hunting bills make their way through the Legislature, pushed by people who don’t know anyone who hunts. Water and agriculture policy is voted on by people whose only connection with farming is the produce aisle at Safeway.
The numbers tell the story. All of Siskiyou County, with its 44,507 residents, is about the same size as Palm Springs, population 44,552. It’s a little bigger than El Centro (pop. 42,598), but not as big as San Luis Obispo (pop. 45,119).
Siskiyou is one of 11 counties sharing the 1st State Senate District, which extends along the Oregon border and south past Lake Tahoe. It shares a single Assembly seat with eight other counties.
By contrast, Los Angeles County is represented by 15 state senators and 24 Assembly members. If there’s a dispute — political, cultural or geographical — who’s going to win?
It wasn’t always this way. For decades, the state Senate’s 40 districts were based on geography, not population, with no county entitled to more than one state senator. That left sparsely populated Siskiyou and Del Norte counties, which shared a state Senate seat, with the same political clout as Los Angeles County and its millions of residents.
A 1951 state Senate map shows just how the tiny cow counties of California’s far north could dominate fast-growing Southern California, using their numbers in the Legislature to protect –and enrich — their rural lifestyle.
It couldn’t continue, of course. The U.S. Supreme Court held in 1964’s Reynolds v Sims that “legislators represent people, not trees or acres,” which meant that population, not geography, must rule the California Legislature.
Since 1966, when the state Senate was reapportioned under the new rules, California’s population has grown from 18.8 million to about 38 million today, with most of that increase coming from cities and their suburbs.
For Siskiyou and California’s other rural counties, Sacramento is a long way away, and not just in miles. Ignored by politicians, invisible to most Californians and the remnants of a past that’s no longer honored, is it any surprise that people there will look to any possibility, even something as wild as secession, in their desperate effort to hang onto the lifestyle they shared with their parents and grandparents?
John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.