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Power-Sharing Fuels Resentment in the Northwest

Selling electricity to California angers many in the region who feel the Golden State has grabbed more than its share of the West's resources.


SEATTLE — It's not that they don't like California up in the Pacific Northwest--not at all.

But when Oregon state Sen. John Lim introduced a bill in 1999 to erect signs on the border saying, "You are welcome to visit Oregon, but please don't stay," he got congratulations on the measure from all over the state. (The applause didn't translate into votes; the wording was quickly changed to "Keep Oregon Green" when it was pointed out that Lim himself had moved to Oregon from Korea.)

When Janet Wing and her husband moved up to Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, several years ago from San Diego, they lasted exactly 14 months. Then Wing put a moving sale ad in the paper. "California haters, put up or shut up," it said. "Your dollar spent here will help two Southern Californians go back to the Golden State. If you can't come to the sale, send money."

The garage sale sold out on the first day, and Wing got a $5 bill in the mail signed by five Idahoans. "We can't come to your sale, but please leave town anyway," a note said.

So it perhaps comes as no surprise that when the Bonneville Power Administration on a single day last week shipped California enough Northwest electricity to power the city of Portland, they weren't exactly doing handsprings in Puget Sound.

In states like Washington, Oregon and Idaho, a profound distrust and distaste for all things Californian is as abiding as the rain. The wave of resentment that has accompanied U.S. Energy Department orders to sell Northwest power to California--when the Northwest is facing its own energy shortage and sharp electricity rate hikes--comes from a long-standing conviction that California has grabbed more than its share of the dwindling resources of the West.

"We have our governor, Gary Locke, in Washington asking people to turn their thermostats down and cut everything back. And there's this feeling that whatever we save is going to be shipped out to Southern California so you guys can keep the blender cranking out the frozen daiquiris," said Kirkland, Wash.-based novelist Robert Ferrigno, himself a transplant since 1991 from Long Beach.

Sensing a rising note of generalized pique, the governors of Washington and Oregon met in Sacramento last week with Gov. Gray Davis and urged California to adopt stronger conservation measures.

"It's very important that this doesn't deteriorate into a Northwest vs. California," Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber said before the meeting. "We're all in this together. We cannot afford to let California go down the tubes."

Much as we would like to, seemed to be the unspoken end of that sentence, in a region that for years has affixed blame for traffic congestion, high housing prices, smog and gangs on a flood of migration from its neighbor to the south.

Wing wasn't just looking for garage sale customers when she posted the ad in Coeur d'Alene; she and her husband got their welcome to Idaho the day they moved in, when someone wrote "Californians Go Home" in the dust on their moving truck.

"Virtually every day we were there, there were letters to the editor complaining about Californians, how they were trashing the environment," Wing recalls. "Now, these were the people who let the silver mines deforest miles and miles of mountains, and all of their lakes were contaminated with mining pollution, and yet it was the Californians who were trashing their pristine environment," Wing said.

California resentment seemed to reach its zenith in Seattle in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when newspaper columnist Emmett Watson promoted his "Lesser Seattle" movement, the aim of which was to play down the charms of the Emerald City so that outsiders (read: Southern Californians) wouldn't want to move there.

"Way back in the early '80s this power thing came up. It had to do with selling electricity to California. I wrote a tongue-in-cheek column telling California to keep their damn hands off our power. It said if San Francisco is allegedly the city that knows how, they ought to know how to turn off the lights," Watson recalls.

University of Washington history professor John Findlay always begins his Northwest history classes asking Washington students to come up with a list of adjectives that come to mind when he mentions California.

"It's usually the same: fast-paced, crime, cold, insensitive, that kind of stuff," Findlay said. "Although Southern California in particular has a few special epithets that always come up."

Findlay believes it is a cultural bias that dates back to the years after the California Gold Rush, when the Pacific Northwest took second seat in competing for economic development, population growth and railroad service. "There was this constant sense that the state was being dominated by California, especially in an economic sense," he said.

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