Dispatches from the State of Jefferson

My family and I have a long-standing tradition of taking one summer road trip a year, and last week we took the opportunity to travel up to the good old State of Jefferson — because seriously, what’s better family fun than discussing political sovereignty and learning about new ways to kick off our government overlords? The only better way would have been a beach trip to Hawaii, but maybe next year.

Jokes aside, the primary reason we took the trip was to see the beautiful scenery of northern California, and we only visited one county — the largest one, Siskiyou — included in the proposed 51st state. I didn’t attend any official State of Jefferson meetings or converse with any of the movement’s leaders; in fact I mostly just talked to average people we happened to stumble across. Nevertheless, the trip provided me with some experiences I’ll never forget, cemented an unshakeable allegiance in my heart to the people of Siskiyou county, and taught me more about what’s at stake for supporters of the State of Jefferson movement than anything else possibly could have.

Let me start off by saying something blunt about the initial disappointments of the trip. Sorry, J. Arthur Bloom, but if you were to take the pulse of the Jefferson movement by a visit to Yreka alone, you’d come away thinking it was deader than dead. Yreka was the first stop on our destination, chosen because it seemed to be the historic focal point of statehood-related activities. After all, this is the place where it all started, when a group of gallant young men decided to hold up Highway 99 declaring that they would “secede each Thursday until further notice.” It is also where Judge John C. Childs was inaugurated (with bears and all) as interim governor of Jefferson in 1941. One would think this would be the place with the greatest passion and fervor of all.

Of the locals I talked to here, I got the feeling that most of them thought of the statehood movement as akin to something like a “Keep Austin Weird” campaign; a novel piece of regional heritage which can be fun to celebrate—certainly something you can sell shirts over—but an idea which is, at bottom, more of a dream of outsiders than an impending reality. And to my surprise, as I walked the town, I found nothing much more serious than stores selling ‘official merchandise.’ Yreka’s museum, which was otherwise very extensive, housed not a single exhibit on the famous story of 1941; even the courthouse where Childs once walked was empty. The annual Siskiyou Golden Fair, which just happened to be going on at the time, was the only place that proved fruitful in my search for secessionist enthusiasm. It was here that I found a Tea Party booth proudly flying the double crosses and offering a raffle for a houseboat vacation (which are apparently the new militia movement).

The thing about Tea Parties, as many have pointed out, is that they’re different wherever you go. And this one certainly wasn’t of the Jenny Beth Martin flavor. As I picked up a Jefferson Backroads magazine sitting on the table, the man at the booth seemed more anxious to hand me another, much more radical, pamphlet; a pamphlet created by Anthony Intiso, a man who’s put on his big boy pants and left the sandbox by proposing a completely independent Republic of Jefferson, instead of merely a new state. Intiso used to think that statehood would be fine, until he recognized what should be glaringly obvious: becoming a new state under an unconstitutional federal system “puts you right back where you started. You may think you’ve gained some freedom—and you may have to a certain extent,certain extent on a state–California — basis, but not from the federal government, because you can’t be a state in that system without adhering to their rules.”

This is a legitimate criticism and we’ll get back to it later, but in the meantime leftists and distributists should know, in case the Tea Party label scares them, that there’s something for everyone here. Intiso’s group, for example, is strongly anti-corporate, and he seems to have even bought into a wacky conspiracy theory which holds that the entity we call the state is literally just a giant private corporation. A little rough around the edges, but hey, he’s got character. Purple up his prose a bit and it sounds like it’s straight out of Tate and Agar’s classic Who Owns America? I’ll take him! Anyways, the bulk of my story really begins in a little unincorporated town along the Klamath river called Happy Camp. For it was here that, to risk sounding sentimental, I discovered what lies at the heart of the State of Jefferson movement; it was here that I discovered that more than statehood, more than republican government, more than secession lies the simple, primordial human idea that no one in a far off land and a computer chair should be able to run other people’s lives for them. To twist up a famous quote, if the hayseed will not sprout from the hard earth, let him die. All I ask is that you give him a chance to sprout!

After our preliminary disappointments in Yreka we decided to head up Highway 96—dubbed “The State of Jefferson Scenic Byway” by the Feds, believe it or not—into the heart of the mountains and the heart of the state. The country up here is absolutely gorgeous and the devotion to the Jeffersonian cause increases proportionately the farther into the backwoods you drive. Appearing even more frequently than the characteristic flag, however, were signs bearing the cryptic words “NO MONUMENT.” These were plastered on houses, trees, and statues, and appeared in tandem with signs supporting statehood, leading me to presume that the two were related in some way, but I had never heard the saying anywhere before.

One of the many "NO MONUMENT" signs dotting the road into Happy Camp.

One of the many “NO MONUMENT” signs dotting the road into Happy Camp. Image Source.

By the time we pulled into Happy Camp’s Bigfoot R.V. Park, our place to stay for the night, I was dying to ask someone about the signs. The first person I had to chance to ask was James Buchner, owner of the Klamath River Resort Inn and Guided Whitewater Rafting Company, and one of the most down to earth men to inhabit Siskiyou county. (He took us on an outstanding whitewater rafting trip.)

What the saying “NO MONUMENT” refers to, he told me, is the Siskiyou Crest National Monument, a proposed national monument that would link the Siskiyou mountains with the section of the Cascade mountains that are already under monument designation by the federal government. The plan is the brainchild of Oregon-based environmentalist group KSWILD, which has been lobbying Washington hard for the monument since 2009 and found a supporter in Obama’s former Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar.

For those not familiar with how the creation of national monuments work, the process is pretty draconian, no matter what one thinks of the outcomes. Under the Antiquities Act of 1906, the president has the authority to turn any public land, at any time, into a national monument via an executive order. This immediately cuts off all economic access to the designated area and turns it, in effect, into a Royal Forest—I mean National Park!—overnight. While Congress would technically have to pass a bill to form a new National Park, this is essentially a faster way of doing the same thing. And it’s something that scares the residents of Happy Camp and other neighboring towns to death, because their entire economy (or what’s left of it anyway) relies on economic access to the surrounding wilderness. Obama has already established twelve national monuments during his time as president (five of these within the year 2013 alone), and the fact that he could declare another one at any time keeps everyone here on edge.

It’s not that the people of Happy Camp don’t care for conservation, or appreciate the area’s magnificent beauty and tranquility—far from it. “More people come through Yosemite in a day than come through here in a season,” James tells me, with a tone that indicates that he wants to keep it that way. The people of the area, though they have always used the land for industry, have always prided themselves on the fact that they know how to live in harmony with it. While I can’t find any official statement, sources indicate that even the elders of the local Karuk tribe, who break bread and share jobs with the predominately white population, are expressing deep concern over the monument.

The environmental group pushing the proposal is a real piece of work. As for the job crisis that would occur should the monument go through, KSWILD would have us know that they will not neglect it. In fact, they just have a different plan—a grand Keynesian plan!—for creating much needed jobs in the area. Reads their website, “The Forest Service and BLM [Bureau of Land Management] should actively decommission many non-essential roads within the Siskiyou crest. These activities would put many local people to work in the woods.” Another of the groups solutions, while it acknowledges the complaints of local residents that because of the already severe limitations on logging, fire hazards are high, proposes something equally stupid. Instead of letting the locals log the excesses of the forest away and absorb the wealth of timber that this logging (their former top industry) brings, the Forest Service should just put them to work in controlled burnings of the trees. This is the only “low-impact” method of disposing of them; any method that would create too much energy use (and livelihood for that matter) must be strictly forbidden.

Predictably, these shenanigans have caused quite an uproar amongst the town. In addition to the hundreds of signs that have been put up, citizens have taken their message to the streets. One woman has complained that her husband was beaten up for expressing his pro-environmentalist views. Shortly after the monument was proposed in 2009, the main hit at neighboring town Willow Creek’s annual Bigfoot Days parade became a man running around in a “Bigfoot costume and a t-shirt that said ‘KS MY ASS’.” Perhaps the most notable form of protest came in 2010, when Parry’s Market, the only grocery store in Happy Camp, put up a sign barring service to anyone supporting protests against timber, an act which sparked a few lone cries of civil rights violation.

You might think that these reactions were a bit exaggerated, if you were unaware of Happy Camp’s history. Sadly, this monument ordeal isn’t the beginning of the town’s problems; it’s just another worry to add to a long list. What started as a booming mining and logging town back in the 1850’s (from which it derived the name ‘Happy Camp’) has only relatively recently had to battle through a series of struggles against state and federal power grabs. As an old Los Angeles Times article points out, “At it’s peak in the mid-1980’s the Klamath’s 350,000-acre Happy Camp district was producing 50 million board feet of timber annually and the town’s population had swollen to 2,500—more than twice its level today.” As both state and federal demands increased, however, the prosperity decreased and the traditional way of life slowly faded, culminating in the closing of one of the town’s last big employers, the Stone Forest Mill, in 1995.

Rita Manley King, whose various titles include ‘mayor’, Siskiyou economic board member, secretary of the Chamber of Commerce, and ‘Queen of the Klamath’, has been trying to bring back capital and investment to the place ever since. In 2007, she appeared on California’s Gold, a popular California television program (and the show that led me to Happy Camp in the first place), sounding optimistic about the prospect of economic growth. But despite the appearances, the town and those surrounding it have fallen into a deep rut.

“[T]he State of Jefferson is a state of mind. We’re very independent, we are real independent people…we’re real freedom-loving people,” King told show-host Huell Howser. Would that it were true! In a heart-wrenching interview with the North Coast Journal, Trista Parry, owner of Parry’s Market, gives a different narrative, reminiscing of a time when the eighty percent of Happy Campers now receiving a welfare check would have been employed in the logging industry in some capacity.

When my Dad and I first talked to Rita at the Bigfoot R.V. Park, she sounded exactly like she did on the California’s Gold program. However, the next morning she opened up a bit about the town’s weaknesses. Crystal meth is now a huge problem up here. A Facebook post on the official “Happy Camp, CA” page, which she runs, announces, “This December’s monthly meth cycle has begun folks!” Another casually asks the question, “Tired of Meth Billies on the River? You know the ones who scream, have the cops over non stop. Trash is everywhere, animals and kids they don’t feed and or abuse.”

The post then goes on to plead for more enforcement of the Uniform Controlled Substances Act, which is very scarce around the area. Ostensibly because of this scarcity, Happy Camp residents have taken to setting up their own rehab fund. Back in 2013, Rita penned a letter protesting state mining regulations—the heroically titled “Declaration of Rita Manley King”—to the California Office of Administrative Law, every word of which she has sworn to be true under penalty of perjury. I encourage you to read the full thing; it’s red, raw American heartland stuff, and not just because it reads like a Wendell Berry poem. Here are a few excerpts:

With the local miner’s incomes destroyed, service businesses in town began to suffer…[t]he rising economy for the Klamath River corridor dwindled to almost nothing.

Community members wrote letters and attended meetings, attempting to educate State officials without success. People became more desperate for income. Locals started growing marijuana. Methamphetamine use began to increase. Crime and domestic violence rose.

We had to short sell our family home, empty our retirement accounts, and continue cutting expenses, doing all work ourselves… …I took a second job out of town caregiving elders for less than minimum wage. After three years of hard work trying to stay afloat since the moratorium, we still don’t have enough money to pay the bills, and are living on credit cards. If my husband and I didn’t work second jobs to supplement our business, we wouldn’t eat.

…For the love of God, please, just give us a season to start to get back on our feet.

This is all incredibly sad, but what does it have to do with the State of Jefferson, or my experience of it, anyway? Why have I gone on for so long about this little town?

The struggle over resources like the one taking place in Happy Camp has long roots in the history of the State of Jefferson, which was partly started over similar timber-related concerns; and Happy Campers have seized upon this parallel en masse, framing their past and current struggles as synonymous with the battles of those brave young men of 1941. Yet there’s a problem with aligning the solution for Happy Camp with the general solution of statehood. To finally get back to Anthony Intiso’s point, statehood could certainly help the people of Happy Camp to an extent: current harmful California land-use restrictions on those lands administered by the state could be abolished and control of them could become more localized. However, most of the land around the area is owned by the federal government and statehood does absolutely nothing to fix the problems of federal overreach, like the proposed Siskiyou Crest Monument, which could sweep away the entire economy of the area with the stroke of a pen.

I have to admit, I didn’t see much else after Happy Camp on my very brief sojourn to the State of Jefferson. Before I knew it, we were passing back through the marshlands of Sacramento, then into the SoCal desert I call home, and the Siskiyou mountains became a memory. My obviously limited experience can’t speak to the state of the movement as a whole; yet if the grievances of any of the other counties of Northern California and Southern Oregon are anything like the grievances of Happy Camp, I think I’ve sufficiently grasped enough to understand what concrete good could be accomplished with the establishment of a 51st state, and what it would still leave open to peril.

I’ll always continue to support the admission of Jefferson into the American Union. But if there’s anything fundamental I took away from this trip it was the challenge posed by this first-hand exposition of the inadequacies of mere statehood. Thomas Jefferson has always had the reputation of being a keen prognosticator of the American future, and maybe he’s right about this too. Maybe support for an independent ‘Republic of the Pacific’ is ultimately the only way to go. It’s heresy to the commissars at the Department of CorrectThink, and would be doomed to almost certain failure. But the people of Happy Camp have got nothing left to lose.

Featured image: Quigley’s Deli, off of Highway 96: “The State of Jefferson Scenic Byway”

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