Secession is not the solution for rural Oregon 

May 15, 2023 5:30 am
Field in Wallowa County

Wallowa County voters decided to break away from Oregon and join Idaho. (Courtesy of Rick Vetter)

From the Cascade Mountain range to the Wallowas, opposition to the status quo is spreading.

Oregonians from 11 eastern counties have voted over the last three years to move toward secession from Oregon, and on May 16, voters in Wallowa County will have their turn. 

The counties that have voted to leave Oregon are largely Republican, but the state is governed by Democrats: They control the Legislature and have held the governor’s seat for the last 40 years.

But secession is not the solution for rural Oregon. It is a distraction from the real issue: People want to be respected, understood and to have influence over their lives.

Now it is time for the state to step back and listen to our eastern neighbors and all of rural Oregon. Instead of discussing what secession could look like, we should discuss what it would take to create a unified Oregon connected not just by Interstate 84, but also by a social fabric stronger than any political party.

The Greater Idaho movement started in 2019 when State of Jefferson advocates and eastern Oregonians who supported joining Idaho came together online, sparking Move Oregon’s Border. Launching ballot initiatives in 2020 across various eastern, central and southern Oregon counties, Move Oregon’s Border had six counties vote in favor of this initiative by 2021. Fast forward to today, this has grown to include 11 counties with Wallowa potentially becoming the 12th.  

Secession is politically unlikely because it would require approval by Oregon and Idaho state legislatures and Congress. Yet the movement speaks to the current challenge of bridging the urban-rural divide. 

Rarely are the unique strengths and contributions of our resilient rural communities acknowledged in urban Oregon. According to Oregon’s 2023 Economic Outlook report, rural economies are leading growth in the state, with metro areas lagging.

Rural areas have something to teach the rest of the state about protecting vulnerable populations. For example, according to a 2020 report by the Portland-based Oregon Community Foundation, seven of the 11 Oregon communities where children were most likely to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty were rural and primarily in eastern Oregon. 

The report also showed that growing up in northeastern Oregon had the most positive impact on future income for low-income children. “On average children who grew up in low-income families in Wallowa, Baker or Grant counties earned 26% more than children in similar families in Jefferson County and 14% more compared to children in Multnomah County,” it said.

Growing economies and increased economic mobility for low-income children are just a few examples of the value our rural communities bring to the state. Better understanding our rural communities and their assets would help to unify Oregon. 

Many states such as Alaska, Massachusetts, Iowa, Utah, Louisiana, and California have figured out how to do this by creating a rural policy office. A rural policy office ensures rural issues are included in political decisions. Once upon a time, Oregon also had one.

In 2004, then-Gov. Ted Kulongoski signed an executive order establishing the Office of Rural Policy and Rural Policy Advisory Committee. Although underfunded and never fully staffed, the committee ensured rural Oregon was considered in policy decisions coming out of the capital. The advisory committee had Republican and Democratic legislators working together on rural policy issues. The committee drew attention to important challenges rural Oregon faced such as water use, which continues to be a problem today.

However, when the Great Recession hit, Democrats cut the committee’s budget, silencing rural concerns after only four years.

Supporters of Greater Idaho believe redrawing borders would give rural Oregonians the political power and representation they want, no longer allowing Portland voters to control their lives. But a separation would not fix the fact that Oregon’s rural communities do not have the population needed for political clout in Idaho.

Bringing rural and urban communities together does not require moving borders. Collectively we know how to build the meaningful relationships needed to unify our state, and everyone has a role to play in closing these long-standing divides. Rural Oregon is more than “Move Oregon’s Border” lawn signs, gun clubs, and economies of the past – it is time we stop talking and start listening.

CORRECTION: Eleven Oregon counties have voted to pursue secession from the state. A previous version of this commentary incorrectly stated that 11 Oregon counties have voted to secede. 

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Rozalyn Mock
Rozalyn Mock

Rozalyn Mock, a rural Oregon native, is a second-year master’s in public policy candidate at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. While there, she co-founded the Rural America Caucus and focused on economic development, state and local government, and social policy. Prior to graduate school, she worked in community economic development at The Ford Family Foundation in Roseburg, and in lending at Northwest Farm Credit Services, now AgWest Farm Credit, in Salem.