An Eastern Oregon effort to join Idaho reflects the growing American divide

By: - September 6, 2023 5:23 pm

Along a highway just south of Fox, Ore., ranch owners post their support for the movement to join Idaho. If Eastern Oregon succeeds in joining Idaho, it could breathe life into similar secessionist movements nationwide. (Matt Vasilogambros/Stateline)

ENTERPRISE, Ore. — This small ranching town, surrounded by towering tree-topped mountains and a valley of rolling grass fields, sits tucked into the northeast corner of the state — both out of the way and right in the middle of a contentious debate.

At a meeting late last month, 25 people packed into a stuffy conference room in the Wallowa County Courthouse — 35 miles west of the Idaho state line and 260 miles east of Portland — to hear county commissioners debate a single agenda item: leaving Oregon.

The Greater Idaho movement, which wants to secede from the Beaver State and become a part of its neighbor to the east, had sputtered along for years, gaining little traction. But then, the coronavirus hit in the spring of 2020.

The global pandemic was “a blessing” for the movement, according to Mike McCarter, who took up the movement’s mantle in 2019. Quarantines and remote learning inflamed residents’ anger with the state government for shutting down schools and businesses. This tension invigorated the effort to join Idaho, a state whose government reacted wholly differently to COVID-19 than Oregon did.

“Our movement brings things to light, and it brings hope,” McCarter said. “I don’t want to see the guns picked up. I don’t want to see the battles. Why can’t we sit down and talk?”

Secession is a long shot that would require approval by Congress; so far, there have been ballot measures, and there has been a lot of talk. But the fact that the movement has gotten even this far illustrates the growing tear in the American fabric.

Greater Idaho has seen a success that other secessionist movements, regionally and in states such as California and Illinois, never reached. If supporters here achieve their goal, it could mean a paradigm shift nationally, proponents say, inspiring more states to split along cultural and political lines.

County by county, Eastern Oregonians have voted on similar measures over the past three years, securing much of the large rural region for the secessionist movement. In June, Wallowa County became the 12th to pass a ballot initiative in support of joining Idaho. The measure, to begin biannual discussions, won by just seven votes of the 3,497 that were cast.

In the stone courthouse last month, in a town square that honors the first settlers who came in the 1880s and the Nez Perce peoples who predated them, supporters argued that Democratic lawmakers, who control the capitol in Salem and were elected largely by Western Oregonians, have ignored the other side of the state and are hurting its way of life.

“I just feel unrepresented, completely,” said Rob DeSpain, standing tall in the back of the room, his white goatee pronounced under a black cap. “We just don’t have a voice. It’s very frustrating.”

Shaking his head at a series of pro-secession speakers who brought up transgender youth, urban decay and the struggle to protect cattle from wolves, another man, David Hayslip, finally raised his hand. There would be cuts in the minimum wage, he pointed out to his neighbors, and a new state sales tax and a potential decline in home values if they joined Idaho.

“If you want to go over there, U-Haul has really good deals,” Hayslip said after exhaling in frustration, looking up from the floor. “Don’t like it here? Hit the road. This is democracy, folks. You don’t like the results? You keep fighting in the democratic system.”

Other residents opposed to secession said they feared what would happen if they lost access to abortion rights, health care coverage, infrastructure funding, mail-in voting and marijuana. Some of them said that while they weren’t born in Oregon, they have lived in the state more years than not. They’re Oregonians and want to remain Oregonians.

The room was split, much like the county. But as in other small towns in America, people knew one another, greeting old friends and neighbors before tension filled the room.

Roger Averbeck addresses his neighbors at the Wallowa County Commission meeting on Aug. 23, calling on them to find a compromise in the debate to join Idaho. (Matt Vasilogambros/Stateline)

Oregon is divided geographically, politically, economically and culturally. Beyond the Cascades, the population drops off with the elevation, as the terrain turns from the moist mountains of the coast and the fertile farmland and progressive population hubs of the Willamette Valley to the high desert, golden grasslands and craggy mountain ranges of the immense east.

Stateline traveled more than 1,000 miles of Eastern Oregon, where supporters of the movement to join Idaho said they feel unheard by the decisionmakers in Salem. Would-be secessionists freely recognize that their communities represent less than a tenth of the state’s population, but they also asked: Don’t we matter?

“You have two very different cultures that shouldn’t be sharing a state government,” said Matt McCaw, the spokesperson for the Greater Idaho movement and a resident of Powell Butte, an unincorporated town near the geographic center of Oregon.

Their grievances are many: They dislike rules that restrict tree-cutting, protect coyotes and promote electric vehicles. They oppose transgender rights, classroom discussions of gender and race, and limits on guns. They detest the taxes and regulations they believe have devastated the region’s economy. And they hate what became of Portland, a city many of them look back on with nostalgia.

For many Eastern Oregonians, there’s a sense of desperation, as if all options have been exhausted and all that remains is joining Idaho.

“I have people come at me and say, ‘Well, what can we do to change it?’” said McCarter, a deeply religious man and an Air Force veteran. “It’s gone too far over the top to change. It really has. It is a battle for our freedom and our self-sufficiency.”

Whether they can succeed is another story.

While they work to secure more wins at the ballot box — including in Crook County next May, and later Gilliam and Umatilla Counties — supporters of the movement are beginning a broader effort to lobby the Idaho and Oregon legislatures to start an interstate dialogue to shift their border — a dialogue for which Oregon Democrats do not have an appetite.

A growing movement out of a divided state

Sitting on the front deck of his single-story green home in La Pine, a wooded city of 2,500 people who live past the lava fields south of tourism haven Bend, McCarter has two flags flying off his house: the American flag and the Idaho flag.

Mike McCarter supports parts of Eastern Oregon joining Idaho. (Matt Vasilagambros/Stateline)

When the 76-year-old is not assisting with pastoral duties at his 30-person church, he fills his retired life with fixing old ham radios, getting back into long-distance running, teaching gun safety and leading the Greater Idaho movement.

Though McCarter lives in Deschutes County — which voted for President Joe Biden in 2020 with 53% support and has not voted to join Idaho — Oregon’s new border could follow the Deschutes River, he said, snaking to the west of his home and putting him within the new Idaho boundary.

Greater Idaho could encompass roughly 15 eastern counties, representing 65% of Oregon’s landmass and one congressional district. Each county handily voted for former President Donald Trump in 2020 with two-thirds or more of the vote. While the movement tried ballot initiatives in Douglas and Josephine Counties, which are west of the Cascade Range, those failed in 2022.

I just feel unrepresented, completely. We just don’t have a voice. It’s very frustrating.

– Rob DeSpain, an Eastern Oregon resident who supports joining Idaho

A splintering of Oregon would mean new tax structures, a transfer of public debts, the loss of state parks and natural resources, and a fundamental shift in social program benefits. The details could take years to work out, but that’s a problem down the line, supporters say. Now, they just want the two states to start talking about a transition.

Supporters for the movement vote mostly Republican, but some are socially conservative while others are more economically libertarian. Some are not even registered to a political party.

“I have very deep roots in the state, or what used to be this state,” said Sandie Gilson, a fifth-generation Oregonian with ancestors who mined gold and operated sawmills. “I don’t recognize it.”

Over chicken Caesar salad at a Main Street eatery in John Day, a town in a high-desert canyon, Gilson described how she’s crisscrossed Grant County, even planning to speak at an upcoming Democratic Party meeting, to talk about the deterioration of Portland, how taxes and regulations stifle housing, and the unrealistic shift away from gas-powered cars for rural communities.

The policies of Salem don’t consider the commonsense requirements of life in the state’s east, she said.

Oregon hasn’t had a Republican governor since 1987; Democrats have held a trifecta for more than a decade, controlling the governor’s office as well as the state House and Senate.

Don’t like it here? Hit the road. This is democracy, folks. You don’t like the results? You keep fighting in the democratic system.

– David Hayslip, an opponent of secession

This is one of the latest iterations of a debate over minority political representation that is as old as this nation’s founding, Gilson said. The U.S. Constitution was written to encourage consensus, she said; the Revolutionary War was fought because people were being taxed but not listened to. “Isn’t that our message?” she asked.

Stephen Piggott doesn’t see it that way.

“I totally understand their concerns,” said Piggott, the momentum program director for Western States Strategies, a Portland-based nonpartisan social welfare organization that campaigned against the ballot measure in Wallowa County. “But for Greater Idaho, there’s no other solution except to say, ‘We can’t find any common ground, so screw it, we’re going to just go up and leave.’”

And while it may not be espousing racist viewpoints, the movement is supported by white nationalists and militia leaders such as Ammon Bundy, Piggott said, harking back to Oregon’s racist founding, when Black people were banned from settling the land. Among the 15 counties that could be part of Greater Idaho, all but three have white populations above 75%, according to census numbers.

Greater Idaho proponents vehemently reject charges of racism or hatred, saying they can’t control the people who agree with their cause. And they say they are not seeking violence, but a peaceful political solution.

“I have people come to me and say, ‘But isn’t this movement kind of racist?’ Well, I had nothing to do with that,” McCarter said, the air around his home still thick with wildfire smoke. “In rural Oregon, if it’s predominantly white, so be it. And we make a point that we don’t get into that angle at all. That’s not what it’s about.”

Retired chimney sweep Grant Darrow said that letting a few counties join Idaho could be a “pressure relief valve” to avoid violence from people long frustrated with Oregon’s policies.

“People are fighting mad,” said Darrow, who sported a handlebar mustache and an “Awake Not Woke” T-shirt in his home in Cove, Oregon, a town nestled in an agricultural valley. “If you’re not moving in a direction that everybody thinks positive, it’s going to blow up.”

But to slice up states to reflect residents’ politics is not how the American political system works, regardless of an urban-rural divide that exists across the country, said Judy Stiegler, a former Oregon Democratic state representative who now is a political science instructor at Oregon State University-Cascades, located in Bend.

“We should be having conversations with each other,” Stiegler said. “The Greater Idaho movement is taking advantage of people’s frustrations. And I believe they’re not being honest about the real objective, which is power.”

The reality of the secession happening is “slim to none,” she said. She expects neither state Democrats nor Congress to endorse the move.

Can it pass the Idaho and Oregon legislatures?

When Idaho Republican state Rep. Barbara Ehardt first heard about Oregon’s movement to join her state, it just resonated with her. Why wouldn’t Idaho be interested in more land, more resources such as timber, minerals and water, and more like-minded people, she asked.

“You can only push people so far, demanding that they acquiesce to some of your non-constitutional whims before people push back,” Ehardt said.

In February, the Idaho House passed her bill to open a formal interstate dialogue with Oregon to secure those counties that want to secede. Although it didn’t move forward in the Senate, Ehardt is “hopeful and optimistic” she can get her bill passed in both the legislative bodies next year. For this to succeed, “it will involve the hand of the Lord.”

When the Oregon state legislature reconvenes next year, Republican state Sen. Dennis Linthicum plans on reintroducing legislation to let those 15 eastern counties secede and join Idaho. His bill died in committee earlier this year.

“I thought we were talking about tolerance and welcoming all ideas and welcoming other thoughts and perspectives, and it turns out none of that is true,” said Linthicum, who voted for the Klamath County ballot measure. “It’s a storyline. And that’s why Eastern Oregonians are fed up with it.”

While she “1,000% agrees” with the reasons why people are so frustrated with the policies coming out of Salem, freshman Republican state Rep. Emily McIntire worries about Eastern Oregonians who have superior health care, child care, food stamps and other state services than Idaho offers, including Oregon’s $14.20 minimum hourly wage compared with Idaho’s $7.25, the federal minimum wage.

“Everybody that’s working at a Walmart in a county in Eastern Oregon, that Walmart can go, ‘We’re going to drop you guys all down to eight bucks an hour,’” she said. “It’s not just like we flip the switch, you’re part of Idaho and everything stays as it is.”

In Enterprise, the meeting wrapped up after more than an hour of discussion involving those in the room and another 30 people who joined by Zoom. The county commissioners finally chimed in.

Though they are officially neutral on the question, all three said they understood the concerns expressed by both sides. Commissioner John Hillock said he’s submitted pieces of legislation, grant proposals for sewer and water projects and new funding requests for the county fairgrounds to lawmakers in Salem and been ignored. He gets it.

As does Commissioner Susan Roberts, who asked attendees to come up with ideas before they meet next in February on how to constructively move forward and get “our friends on the west side of the state” to have a dialogue.

“They don’t get us. On the other hand, I don’t get most of them. Most of the time, I can’t figure it out,” she said with a chuckle. “But that is the back-and-forth that we need.”

This article first appeared in Stateline, which like the Nebraska Examiner is part of the States Newsroom network.

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Matt Vasilogambros
Matt Vasilogambros

Matt Vasilogambros covers voting rights, gun laws and Western climate policy for Stateline. He lives in San Diego, California.

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