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Northern California counties revive an old idea for a breakaway state

Tired of city-centric government control, rural Northern California counties consider separation — just as their forebears did.

December 28, 2013|By Lee Romney
  • John Lisle, right, owner of the Palace Barber Shop, cuts 14-year-old Isaiah Solus' hair in Yreka, Calif. "I think we should do it," said Isaiah about breaking away from California government.
John Lisle, right, owner of the Palace Barber Shop, cuts 14-year-old Isaiah… (Francine Orr )

YREKA, Calif. — Farmers, ranchers and onetime loggers were among those who packed a church community room here in August to listen to a former state lawmaker convey his vision of a cleaved — and more governable — California.

The theme was familiar, the resonance deep for those convinced that relentless regulation is strangling the economy of this northern border county. But this time, a tall man sporting a baseball cap stood up with a challenge.

"Are we just going to go have an ice cream and complain?" said Mark Baird, a pilot of 747 cargo planes who with his wife runs a cattle ranch and the local radio station. "Or are we going to do something about it?"

PHOTOS: Pondering a separate state

Within two weeks, Baird had crafted a declaration in support of the breakaway State of Jefferson and placed it on the Siskiyou County Board of Supervisors agenda. It was approved a week later on a 4-1 vote.

And with that, a movement that has waxed and waned for 150 years was born again.

Neighboring Modoc County's supervisors soon clamored for a similar declaration, and also voted "yea"; the Tehama County board agreed to put the matter to voters; and organizing committees sprang up in seven other counties.

The State of Jefferson flag — which dates to a 1941 effort — is now flown from the Nevada border west to the Pacific Ocean and as far south as Yuba City. (It features a gold pan with two X's, for the double-crossing purportedly dealt to residents of Northern California and southern Oregon by their respective seats of state government.)

Baird rattles off the movement's rationale: An independent state would deliver local control to a region whose residents have long chafed under Sacramento's rules, feel alienated from urban culture and believe in greater push-back against an overreaching federal government.

Most notably, supporters say, it would provide stronger representation to a swath of counties so sparsely populated that their collective voice is now lost in the breathtaking landscape of mountains, rivers and alfalfa-dotted valleys.

"All we want is the right to determine our own future," Baird said. "This is for our children, and their children."

Majority votes are required in the state Legislature and U.S. Congress for separation to occur. The last state to do so was West Virginia — in 1863 — and dozens of regions across the U.S. have since seen their efforts fizzle, most recently last month when just five of 11 Colorado counties voted to form an independent state.

But in the northern rural counties of California, the idea has widespread backing from frustrated residents craving economic opportunity and control.

"We are staking our futures on our ability to live and thrive in this area," said Kayla Nicole Brown of Redding, a 23-year-old student of early American history who has become a leader in Shasta County's movement for the sake of her 10-month-old son, Hunter. "And if we can't, we have to leave."


In Yreka's Palace Barber Shop, a State of Jefferson flag hangs near heads of bear and elk, and a tiny stuffed Bigfoot doubles as cheerleader, a sign proclaiming Jefferson "the 51st State" in its hand.

Owner John Lisle, 55, chats easily about California's "growing urban/rural divide." As he rattled off obstacles to those "making a living off the environment" on a recent evening, a young customer weighed in.

"I think we should do it," blurted Isaiah Solus, 14, a descendant of Siskiyou County pioneers from Portugal. "We're a whole different part of the state. We need our own water, we need our own rules.... We need a whole different set of things than the city people."

The menu of grievances includes a proposal to remove Klamath River dams, a crackdown on gold dredging and a fire prevention fee for rural areas that has been challenged in the courts as a tax.

They are recited in the remotest pockets, where the movement's talking points have spread thanks to Facebook and websites devoted to the cause.

The Scott Valley stretches green and languorous in the shadow of the pristine Marble Mountains. Punky Hayden, 72, was born here the year the movement first sparked, and his father, a county supervisor, spoke of it often.

"We're governed by Los Angeles and San Francisco," the former logger said. "We live by their rules, and we don't like living by their rules."

Still, Hayden believes the State of Jefferson will remain a state of mind. "I'm an optimist," he said, "but I'm not that much of an optimist."

Baird and others doing the legwork have no time for such defeatist talk. Between now and mid-February, town hall meetings are scheduled in Butte, Glenn, Sutter and Del Norte counties.

Del Norte organizer Aaron Funk is stepping down from nearly half a dozen local boards to focus full time on the withdrawal movement.

The vote at one recent meeting of core volunteers: to study up on precedent and begin plotting logistics.

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