BLM has a plan to tackle booming recreation — at least in theory
People visited Bureau of Land Management land more than 80 million times in 2022, hiking, biking, driving, exploring, hunting, fishing, climbing, camping and otherwise recreating. That’s a 40% increase over the past decade. In the same time period, the BLM’s recreation budget rose by only 22%.
The combination translates into a vexing problem for public-land managers in the West: Popular areas risk being loved to death. On the ground, this means more cars, trucks and ATVs barreling over sensitive species, and more garbage littering more trails through winter wildlife range and campsites. Meanwhile, the agency lacks the resources to keep up.
“In the past, we’ve had the luxury of being passive, because our lands haven’t faced that much pressure,” says Joel Webster, vice president of Western conservation for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “But now, if we’re not proactive, it’s going to have some serious consequences.”
In an attempt to head off those consequences, the BLM recently released a 28-page document called the “Blueprint for 21st Century Outdoor Recreation.” In it, the agency takes on persistent issues linked to recreation’s increasing popularity, including harm to sacred tribal sites, chronic funding shortfalls and barriers to equal use, such as limited outreach and lack of diverse staffing.
The plan itself reads at a high level, addressing four broad goals: bringing in more money, building partnerships across public and private sectors, improving outreach and inclusion, and protecting the land while meeting the demands of increased recreation. The public has until Sept. 30 to give feedback to the agency.
The document is not a formal plan, but Webster said its recommendations could help relieve some concrete recreational pressures, beginning with the fact that only about 30% of BLM lands have a basic travel management plan. That means new roads and trails pop up across landscapes from sagebrush to slickrock, with little regard for an area’s wildlife and cultural sites.
As a first step, the agency should account for existing trails and roads, said Megan Lawson, an economist for Headwaters Economics, a nonprofit research firm based in Montana. The BLM has successfully identified most of its natural resource development opportunities. Doing the same for its trails would not only help protect important sites, but also help local communities manage and benefit from recreation.
The agency also needs to figure out just how many people are using various sites and find ways to prevent crowding and overuse at the most popular areas.
Take Moab, Utah. Visitation exploded there with hikers, bikers, climbers and campers drawn by its famous swooping sandstone, wavy dunes and towering crags. But Moab is also heralded as an example of how to respond, with hikers, bikers — both motorized and non — and other community members working with the BLM diligently, year after year, to build and maintain trails able to handle the ever-increasing crush of visitors. The coalition has also helped ease the burden on nearby national parks by redirecting thrill-seekers to other vast tracts of public land.
But it takes money, Lawson said, to track trail-users and post signs, build outhouses and educate visitors in multiple languages, and not all communities have the financial resources of an outdoor mecca like Moab.
And the BLM’s recreation budget is “trending in the wrong direction,” said Kevin Oliver, BLM’s division chief for recreation and visitor services. Ten years ago, the BLM spent about 84 cents on each visit. Today that number has fallen to 74 cents.
BLM officials aren’t complaining about having more visitors; Oliver called the recreation spike “fantastic.” But they acknowledge that, as things stand, they simply cannot cope with the increasing demands. They know that the 40% visitation bump isn’t an aberration: Americans want to get outside.
The new document stresses the importance of states, tribes and local communities working with the BLM to come up with solutions. But the coalitions they create need to be durable, Oliver said, given inevitable changes in administrations and political priorities.
Webster agrees. While the growing numbers of visitors have already damaged some popular areas and put pressure on wildlife from elk to sage grouse, especially in states like Colorado, the bulk of BLM lands are not yet recreation destinations. But that can change quickly, and Webster wants the agency to plan ahead.
“It’s a lot harder to pull things back in if you’ve made a mistake than it is to do it right from the beginning,” Webster said. “And there’s just more people in the West, and more people recreating on our public lands.”
Christine Peterson lives in Laramie, Wyoming, and has covered science, the environment and outdoor recreation in Wyoming for more than a decade. Her work has appeared inNational Geographic, Outdoor Lifeand theCasper Star-Tribune, among others. We welcome reader letters. Email High Country News at email@example.com or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.
Who picks school curriculum? Idaho law hands more power to parents
TWIN FALLS, Idaho — When J.D. Davis, the department chair of English at Twin Falls High School, was told last year that half of the committee he was leading to pick new texts and materials for the district’s English Language Arts classrooms would be parents and community members, he objected.
“I said, ‘I’m not going to have parents involved! They don’t know what we’re doing. They don’t know what we need in a textbook as far as curriculum.’ I kind of scoffed at it,” said Davis, who also teaches journalism, oversees the school newspaper and advises the Gay-Straight Alliance.
A new Idaho law gave him no choice.
Across the U.S., educators typically lead textbook selections, although many districts, like Twin Falls, have long included parents in the process. Idaho’s “District Curricular Adoption Committees” law makes parent involvement mandatory — and then some — demanding districts form committees of at least 50 percent non-educators, including parents of current students, to review and recommend new texts and materials.
A year in, the law is reshaping what is or isn’t in the curriculum in many counties in this Western state, including how subjects like climate change or social movements are discussed in some courses.
It has spurred tough but positive parent-school discussions in Twin Falls where parents and educators say the conversations have forced them to consider one another’s concerns and perspectives. In other districts, however, it’s poised to harden divisions and keep students from getting learning tools they need.
Around the country, curricula — books and materials that guide but don’t define lessons — have become a political target of conservatives who fear conflict with values they want to instill in their children. Over the past two years, 147 “parental rights” bills were introduced in state legislatures, according to a legal tracker by the education think tank FutureEd.
Only a handful passed. Many restrict discussions around race and gender. Several enforce parents’ ability to review texts and materials. A 2022 Georgia “Parents’ Bill of Rights” requires that schools provide parents access to classroom and assigned materials within three days of a request. The Idaho curriculum law, embraced by the state’s conservative legislature, went into effect in July 2022.
The curriculum law is noteworthy because it gives non-educators more power not just to inspect curriculum, but to help choose it.
Some educators view it as a political move to undercut their professional role. “The parent partnership is important,” said Peggy Hoy, an instructional coach in the Twin Falls district and the National Education Association director for Idaho. “The problem is when you make a rule like they did and there is this requirement, it feels as an educator that the underlying reason is to drive a wedge between the classroom and parents.”
Sally Toone, a recently retired state representative and veteran teacher who opposed the law, sees it as a legislative move by conservatives “to have parents be a driver, instead of a partner, in the educational process.”
Educators also voiced practical considerations. It can be tough for districts to find parents to devote time to curriculum review. Many have had to scramble, Hoy and others said. Only three non-educators agreed to serve on a math curriculum committee in Twin Falls, which meant that only three educators could participate — fewer than half the optimal number, said the educator who led the committee. Ditto for a science curriculum committee in Coeur D’Alene.
“My family and I are very religious. My biggest concern as a father was, ‘What are my children going to be reading?’ ”
Chris Reid, a father of seven who served on the committee to select a new English Language Arts curriculum for the Twin Falls School District
Having many non-educators involved also changes how materials are judged. Educators want to know, for example, if lessons are clear and organized, and whether they connect to prior learning and support students of differing levels. By contrast, “parents don’t understand the pedagogy of what happens in a curriculum,” said Hoy. They “look at the stories, the word problems, the way they are explaining it.”
Rep. Judy Boyle, a Republican state legislator who sponsored the law, initially agreed to an interview but did not respond to several requests to arrange it.
During the review process in Twin Falls, a district with 9,300 students in southern Idaho, parents objected to a theme around peaceful protests, the tone of questions around climate change and lessons that included social emotional learning.
The curriculum with social emotional learning “got nixed pretty quickly,” said Davis, the English teacher leading the committee. Social emotional learning (SEL) — tools and strategies that research shows can help students better grasp academic content — has become a new lightning rod for the far-right across and is often conflated with Critical Race Theory or CRT.
Chris Reid, a banker and vice mayor of Twin Falls and father with seven children in the public schools, said he was eager to help select the new English Language Arts curriculum and make sure materials were “age-appropriate” and not include “revisionist history,” LGBTQ themes or sexuality introduced “to younger-age children.”
“My family and I are very religious,” said Reid, sitting one afternoon in his mezzanine office at First Federal Bank. “My biggest concern as a father was, ‘What are my children going to be reading?’”
Despite some tense conversations, Davis, the teacher, said the process was overall “not threatening.” He also liked the curriculum choice, the myPerspectives textbooks by Savvas Learning Company. He does, however, see risks with the new mandate, including that a parent or community member with an agenda “could hamstring the district from getting the best textbook,” he said. “It could literally be one member of the committee.”
Committee member Anna Rill, a teacher at Canyon Ridge High School, said the difficult conversations about content “made us think a little more about the community you are living in and that you are serving.”
Twin Falls, named for the waterfalls formed by the Snake River Canyon dam, which in the early 1900s turned the area from desert into a rich agricultural region now called “The Magic Valley,” is politically conservative (70 percent voted for Donald Trump in 2020). L.H. Erickson, director of secondary programs for the school district, said he thought the curriculum “should meet the values and ideals of your community.”
Increasing public involvement makes good sense because schools must be responsive to parent views, said Erickson. “Parents give us their children for several hours a day and a lot of trust and we want to make sure to earn and keep that trust.”
Reid, the father of seven, liked being able to share his. “I got to hear other perspectives; they got to understand my side on the content,” he said. The experience led him to conclude that, “teachers are not evil. They are not trying to indoctrinate my child.”
The new law may help to build bridges in Twin Falls and some other communities. But in West Bonner County, which serves about 1,000 students in rural north Idaho, a year-old dispute over an English Language Arts curriculum continues to fuel division.
The blow-up began last summer. In June, before the new law went into effect, the curriculum review committee, which included a few parents, chose the Wonders English Language Arts curriculum from McGraw-Hill. The school board approved it quickly and unanimously. The materials were purchased and delivered. “They were stacked in the hallways,” one parent said.
Then, some local conservative activists loudly objected, saying the materials contained social emotional learning components. In developing the curriculum, McGraw-Hill had partnered with Sesame Workshop to include SEL skills that language on the Wonders site said included “a focus on self-confidence, problem-solving, and pro-social behavior.” At a meeting on Aug. 24, 2022, the school board voted 3-1 to rescind the curriculum.
Because the existing curriculum is out of print, the district lacked a reading program last year.
“We had no spelling lists, no word work. The first unit was on the desert and we live in north Idaho,” said Whitney Urmann, who taught fourth grade last year at West Bonner County School District’s Priest Lake Elementary School. “Very early on, I stopped using the curriculum,” Urmann said.
She had two workbooks for her entire class and few books leveled to her students’ abilities. Other materials were incomplete or irrelevant, she said. From mid-October on, she said, she purchased materials herself, spending $2,000 of her $47,000 salary to be able to teach reading.
The board’s decision, said Margaret Hall, the board member who cast the dissenting vote, “has created some ill feelings.” Indeed: Two board members who voted to rescind the curriculum now face a recall after parents gathered enough signatures on petitions to force a vote.
Shouting at one school board meeting in June went on for nearly four hours.
The dispute, and the subsequent absence of teaching materials, has upset some local parents.
Hailey Scott, a mother of three, said she worries that her child entering first grade, an advanced reader, won’t “be challenged.” Meanwhile, her third grader is behind in reading, said Scott, “and I fear she will be set back even more by not having a state-approved curriculum in her classroom.”
Whitney Hutchins, who grew up in the district and works at the Priest Lake resort her family has owned and operated for generations, recently decided with her husband to move across the state line to Spokane, Washington.
“This is not the environment I want to raise my child in,” said Hutchins, mother of an 18-month-old. She said the curriculum law is part of a larger problem of extremists gaining control and destroying civic institutions.
“It is scary to me that 50 percent of people choosing the curriculum are not going to be teachers,” she said. “It is scary to me that it is going to be people with a political agenda who don’t believe in public education.”
Hutchins doesn’t see things improving. The school board, on a 3-2 vote, chose Branden Durst — who was previously a senior analyst at the far-right Idaho Freedom Foundation and has no educational experience — as the district’s new superintendent over Susie Luckey, the interim superintendent and a veteran educator in the district.
Durst said that he wanted the job because of the district’s challenges, including around curriculum. “I have a lot of ideas that are frankly unorthodox in education. I needed to prove to myself that those things are right,” he said. Those ideas could include using a curriculum developed by the conservative Christian Hillsdale College, he said.
Durst is currently assembling a new committee with plans to quickly adopt a new English Language Arts curriculum, but declined to share details.
“It is scary to me that 50 percent of people choosing the curriculum are not going to be teachers. It is scary to me that it is going to be people with a political agenda who don’t believe in public education.”
Whitney Hutchins, mother who recently decided to leave Twin Falls for Spokane, Washington
Jessica Rogers, who served on the committee that picked the Wonders curriculum, said she saw hints of trouble long before the vote to reject the curriculum. She said the curriculum adoption committee anticipated political attacks, including over images that showed racial diversity. “One of the things we did was go through the curriculum and see where the first blond-haired, blue-eyed boy was,” she recalled, adding that they noted pages to use as a defense.
It was, she said, “bizarre.”
Rogers and her husband recently built a home atop a hill with a broad view of Chase Lake. As her three daughters had a water fight on the patio, she hoped aloud that building in the West Bonner County School District was not a mistake.
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Oregon’s Greater Idaho movement echoes a long history of racism in the region
The latest movement, Greater Idaho, seeks to slice off almost everything east of the Cascade Mountains and add it to Idaho, uniting the right-leaning portions of the Beaver State with its more conservative neighbor. Nearly two dozen people conceived the idea over pizza and soft drinks in a La Pine, Oregon, restaurant in 2019.
Organizers frame Greater Idaho as a natural byproduct of Oregon’s “urban/rural divide” — shorthand for how populous cities can sway a state’s politics. The idea is far-fetched: In order for eastern Oregon to become Idaho, Oregon’s Democratic-dominated Legislature, Idaho’s Republican-dominated Legislature and the divided United States Congress would all have to agree. Still, the campaign has gained attention, garnering articles in national media outlets; in 2021, The Atlantic called it “Modern America’s Most Successful Secessionist Movement.”
But less attention has been paid to its underlying motives and how they fit into the Northwest’s long history of racially motivated secessionism. Over time, Greater Idaho has slowly revealed itself to be something of a poisoned apple: framed as a gift to discontented rural people, but actually a front for far-right culture war talking points, including racist ones.
The movement’s website and leaders echo Trumpian rhetoric about “illegals” and lambast Oregon for education programs about Black history and public health measures that prioritize communities of color. During the first year of COVID-19 restrictions, in 2020, Mike McCarter, a movement leader, told a regional website that Oregon “protects Antifa arsonists, not normal Oregonians.” He added, “It prioritizes one race above another for vaccines and program money and in the school curriculum, and it prioritizes Willamette Valley” — where Portland is located — “above rural Oregon.”
In 2021, Eric Ward, then-executive director of Western States Center, a Portland-based pro-democracy think tank, accused Greater Idaho of simply reviving what the Oregon Capital Insider described as a “white ethno-state dream.” The center’s advocacy arm later sponsored anti-Greater Idaho TV ads.
Over time, Greater Idaho has slowly revealed itself to be something of a poisoned apple: framed as a gift to discontented rural people, but actually a front for far-right culture war talking points, including racist ones.
McCarter pushed back: “Calling us racist seems to be an attempt to associate a legitimate, grass-roots movement of rural Oregonians with Hollywood’s stereotypes of low-class, ignorant, evil, ugly, dirty Southerners,” he said in a statement posted alongside photographs of Ward and Western States Center’s board — who are all Black — and the center’s staff. “(Ward’s) words mark anyone with a Greater Idaho sign or a Greater Idaho hat as targets for violent antifa members.”
Meanwhile, prominent racists were fired up about the idea. White nationalist leader Jared Taylor touted it on his podcast: “People who live out in the continents of rural sanity, they don’t want to be governed by the people who live on those islands of urban insanity,” he said. The audio was repurposed for a video on the far-right social network Gab — where former Fox News host Tucker Carlson is considered a trusted media source and no one would get banned for posting a swastika. Users buzzed about Greater Idaho.
Articles and clips on the anti-immigrant website VDARE also promoted it. One blog post said that Greater Idaho “would free eastern Oregonians from the anti-white, totalitarian leftists who rule the state.” A video warned that Oregon “won’t protect its residents from thugs, illegal aliens, communist rioters and other undesirables.”
Because Greater Idaho is unlikely to become a reality, “people dismiss it,” said Stephen Piggott, a program director with Western States Center. And that, he believes, is dangerous: “People are not connecting the dots,” he said. “The people who want to create a white homeland are backing it.”
WHEN OREGON WAS ADMITTEDto the Union, its Constitution contained a clause banning Black people from moving there — the only state with such a provision. Even before its borders were drawn, people floated the idea of creating a slave-owning haven in what is now southern Oregon and Northern California, branding it the “Territory of Jackson,” after President Andrew Jackson. Confederate sympathizers considered several of the new state’s southernmost counties “the Dixie of Oregon.” Later, in the mid-20th century, the State of Jefferson movement emerged in the same area; it nixed owning slaves, but retained a slave owner as its namesake. Driven by people who felt they were over-taxed by Oregon and California, the movement still has supporters.
The secessionist torch passed from generation to generation. The phrasing changed, but the talking points remained the same.
In 1986, after migrating from California to North Idaho to build a racist refuge for his group the Aryan Nations, white supremacist Richard Butler hosted his annual Aryan World Congress — a national gathering of neo-Nazis, racist skinheads and members of the Ku Klux Klan. They agreed that, in the not-so-distant future, U.S. cities would become so overrun by minority groups that white people would be forced to flee to an “Aryan homeland” they envisioned in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.
Butler died in 2004. Eventually, his compound was fully bulldozed and his acolytes scattered, but his ideas remained and evolved. In 2011, survivalist blogger and New York Times best-selling novelist James Wesley, Rawles floated an idea called “The American Redoubt.” (According to the Anti-Defamation League, some individuals add errant punctuation to their names to distinguish their first and middle names from their government-imposed or family names.) He encouraged Christians of any race who felt alienated by urban progressive politics to relocate to the Northwest, writing: “I’m inviting people with the same outlook to move to the Redoubt states.” Recently, the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a right-wing political think tank, echoed this. “Are you a refugee from California, or some other liberal playground?” it asked on its website, welcoming those newcomers as “true” Idahoans.
Within the last two years, Vincent James Foxx, a white nationalist associated with the Rise Above Movement — a group the Southern Poverty Law Center described as “an overtly racist, violent right-wing fight club”— relocated to Post Falls, Idaho. “A true, actual right-wing takeover is happening right now in the state of Idaho,” Foxx declared.
Greater Idaho is driven by ideas similar to those behind past movements: fleeing cities, lauding traditionalist Christian values, pushing a far-right political agenda. “Ultimately, I think in some ways, Butler’s vision is coming true,” said David Neiwert, an expert on far-right extremism and the author of The Age of Insurrection.
What all these secessionist ideas have in common, Neiwert said, is that they are anti-democracy. Greater Idaho’s organizers “don’t really want to put up with democracy,” he said. “They don’t want to deal with the fact that if you want to have your position win in the political arena, you have to convince a bunch of people. They just want to take their ball and create a new playground.”
Gary Raney, former sheriff of Idaho’s Ada County, where Boise is located, disliked seeing his state “being advertised as an extremist haven.” In response, last year he founded Defend and Protect Idaho, a political action committee that fights political extremism. “Everybody’s entitled to their opinion, and I welcome that discourse and discussion,” he said. “But when people are wanting to overthrow our government or our republic or our democracy … there’s nothing healthy about that.”
What all these secessionist ideas have in common, Neiwert said, is that they are anti-democracy. Greater Idaho’s organizers “don’t really want to put up with democracy,” he said.
In 2023, the Idaho House of Repre-sentatives passed a nonbinding proposal calling for formal talks with the Oregon Legislature about moving the border, though no such talks occurred. Raney sees Greater Idaho as “driving a wedge” in rural communities, using resentment over urban power to recruit people to more extreme causes. “The good people of Oregon who are doing this for the right reasons: Be realistic that it’s never going to happen, and be more influential in the Oregon Legislature,” Raney said. “For the extremists who are simply using this to divide and create their right-wing haven?
“Stay the hell out of Idaho,” he said. “Because we don’t want you.”
BY GREATER IDAHO spokesman Matt McCaw’s telling, the movement is born out of opposites that run as deep as the land itself. “The west side of the state is urban. It’s green, it’s very left-leaning,” he said in an interview with High Country News. “The east side of the state is conservative, it’s rural, it’s very dry. It’s a different climate.
“Give me a topic, and I can tell you that the people in Portland feel one way about it and vote one way, and the people in eastern Oregon or rural Oregon feel one way about it and vote differently,” he said. “Stereotype is a word that maybe gets a bad rap.”
To become Idahoans, McCaw explained, would mean “to have traditional values that focus on faith, freedom, individualism and tradition.” He pointed to Oregon’s liberal voting record on gun control, abortion and drug legalization. “Broadly, the people (in eastern Oregon) are very like-minded, just like broadly the people in the Portland metro area are very like-minded,” he said. “On these issues, Portland has a very distinctly different set of values than rural America.”
Speaking of differences, there are big ones between Idaho and Oregon. In rural Oregon counties, minimum wage is $12.50; in Idaho, it’s $7.25. Marijuana is legal in Oregon; in Idaho, possession can be punishable with jail time. In Idaho, abortion is essentially illegal; earlier this year, Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek announced the state had acquired a three-year stockpile of mifepristone, a drug used for medical abortions. While there are no detailed plans on how Greater Idaho would bridge these gaps, McCaw said that “all of these things can be worked out.”
But is he upset by the white supremacist support for Greater Idaho? “I think that the extremist thing gets overblown,” he said. “In any group, there are going to be extremists that latch on, no matter if you want them or not.”
Nella Mae Parks, an eastern Oregonian, was raised in Union County, Oregon, and runs a farm there. She doesn’t recognize Greater Idaho’s portrayal of her home. “I think it’s a bought-and-paid-for narrative about what it means to be a rural American,” she said.
On the day Parks spoke to High Country News, she and a dozen other eastern Oregonians had just returned home after a 12-hour round-trip drive to Salem, Oregon’s capital, in an effort to get legislators to address nitrate water pollution. In 2022, commissioners in nearby Morrow County declared a state of emergency after high levels of nitrate — which is common in fertilizer and can cause cancer and respiratory issues— were found in domestic wells.
Parks’ group came home unsure if they had accomplished anything. “The governor won’t meet with us on our issues, some of our own legislators don’t care about our issues,” Parks said. “I can understand why people feel left behind or left out, or in other ways sort of alienated from the more urban centers of power in Oregon. I think a lot of us feel that way, regardless of our politics.
“When we get blown off, that is widening this rural/urban divide,” she said.
But Parks’ solution is not to leave the state; it’s to fix it. And in May, it seemed like the effort had been worth it: Kotek told eastern Oregon leaders that she had asked the state for $6.2 million to address the nitrate issue. “It has taken a while to get here,” she admitted.
Gwen Trice, who grew up in eastern Oregon, is the executive director of the Maxville Heritage Interpretive Center, a museum in Joseph dedicated to the multicultural histories of Oregon’s loggers. She won’t call Greater Idaho a movement, or even an idea. Instead, she calls it “a notion.”
“I can understand why people feel left behind or left out, or in other ways sort of alienated from the more urban centers of power in Oregon. I think a lot of us feel that way, regardless of our politics.”
Trice founded the museum when she realized that the stories of the region’s Black loggers — including her father — had never been told. The logging industry once thrived in Maxville, now a ghost town. The Bowman-Hicks Lumber Company recruited skilled loggers from the South, regardless of race, despite laws that had long excluded Black people from settling in Oregon. “We’ve worked hard to tell, honor and even embrace the messy part of our history,” she said, “and really tell a truthful story.”
Speaking as a historian, Trice said there’s no difference between Greater Idaho and the previous, more explicitly racist movements. “It’s repackaged,” she said. “I don’t think that anything is being hidden, and it’s appealing to a certain group of people only.
“It’s symbolic of dominant culture saying, ‘We know what’s better for you than you do.’”
Pauline Braymen, an 85-year-old retired rancher in Harney County, called Greater Idaho ideological, and impractical — a way of going back in time. “The urban/rural divide is an emotionally based state of mind that distorts reality,” she said. “The changes and steps forward in our quality of life in the 20th century, during my lifetime, were amazing. I just see all of that progress and vision being destroyed.
“If I wanted to live in Idaho,” she added, “I would move there.”
ON A MAP OF THE NORTHWEST,Washington and Oregon nestle together in semi-rectangular sameness. Divided in part by the Columbia River, Washington eases its southern border into the curve of Oregon’s north, like two spoons in a drawer. But next door, Idaho asserts itself like an index finger declaring “Aha!” or a handgun aimed at the sky for a warning shot.
McCaw, the Greater Idaho spokesman, often says that borders are imaginary lines: “a tool that we use to group similarly minded people, like-minded people, culturally similar people.”
“That whole statement is absolute nonsense,” said former Idaho State Historian Keith Petersen, who wrote a book about the borders in question, titled Inventing Idaho: The Gem State’s Eccentric Shape. The Idaho-Oregon border, he said, simply made the most geographical sense.
In 1857, two years before statehood, delegates from across Oregon Territory gathered to determine the new state’s edges. They decided that Oregon’s border should run from Hells Canyon south into the belly of the Snake and Owyhee rivers, then drop straight down to the 42nd Parallel. Only one delegate championed the Cascade Mountains as the new state’s easternmost edge, fearful that people too far from the capital wouldn’t be effectively represented.
“This grievance that ‘the population is over there, it’s so far to get there, we’ll never have power and influence,’” Petersen said, “hasn’t changed.”
Earlier this year, at a virtual town hall, two of eastern Oregon’s own instruments of power and influence in Salem — elected Republican lawmakers — grumbled that Greater Idaho was actually siphoning authority away from them, making it hard to effectively govern.
“The Greater Idaho people keep saying we need to do this,” said Oregon State Sen. Lynn Findley, who represents people from the Cascades to Idaho. Greater Idaho supporters have proposed ballot measures across Oregon that would force county officials to hold regular discussions about joining Idaho. None of the measures actually call for moving the border. And support hasn’t exactly been overwhelming; the most recent measure, in Wallowa County, passed by just seven votes. Still, by spring 2023, voters in 12 eastern Oregon counties had approved similar measures. “I’m no longer working on gun bills, abortion bills and other infrastructure bills,” Findley said. “It’s taken time away that I think would be better spent working on tax issues, and a whole plethora of other stuff.”
“We understand the intent and we understand the frustration,” agreed Rep. Mark Owens. “But I’m not going to apologize for having not given up on Oregon.”
But by May, it seemed Findley was, in a way, giving up. He was one of a dozen Republican senators and one Independent who walked out of the Statehouse for several weeks to protest bills on abortion access, gender-affirming care and raising the minimum age to purchase semi-automatic rifles.
In the midst of the walkout, just before Memorial Day, as the rhododendrons in Northeast Portland erupted in magenta blooms, McCaw, in a blue suit and crisp white shirt, sat in front of a live audience at the Alberta Rose Theatre. He was participating in a public discussion hosted by Oregon Humanities, which facilitates statewide conversations “across differences of background, experience and belief.” The event was ostensibly about borders, but by the end it was clear that it was really about Greater Idaho. McCaw repeated his talking points: Eastern Oregonians and western Oregonians are fundamentally different; borders create tension.
“We have a permanent political minority on the east side of the state,” he said.
Beside him were two other panelists, who shifted uncomfortably in their seats. One was Alexander Baretich, who designed the Cascadia flag: a blue-, white- and green-striped banner with a Douglas Fir at its center. The flag represents the larger Cascades and Columbia River Basin bioregion, “a living space — a life space,” he explained. “Once you get into that consciousness that you are interconnected with everything around you … those political borders dissolve.”
It’s the antithesis of Greater Idaho: Cascadia unites, Greater Idaho divides. “That flag is to create that consciousness that we are one with the planet,” Baretich said. McCaw furrowed his brow.
The moderator, Adam Davis, interjected: “I actually get viscerally uncomfortable … when I hear, ‘There’s people on the east side are one way, people on the west side are another way.’” Tension, he said, is difficult, but crucial. “That tension holds what our democracy, if it’s going to be an inclusive democracy, kind of requires.”
McCaw said eastern Oregonians, in 2020, didn’t feel like Oregon was being inclusive when it issued statewide indoor mask mandates. It “super-charged our movement,” he said. “The people on the east side of the state did not want those restrictions.”
“To form a movement because other people aren’t feeling like they have a voice in the state, while completely disregarding this reality and how effective it’s been towards Indigenous people? That is the gaslighting part.”
“I’m just going to straight-up disagree,” said the other panelist, Carina Miller, a member of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and chair of the Columbia River Gorge Commission. Miller lives east of the Cascades on the Warm Springs Reservation, which McCaw told High Country News would be excluded from Greater Idaho, along with the city of Bend, because of their liberal politics.
Throughout the night, Miller repeated one phrase — “societal gaslighting.” She described growing up Indigenous in Oregon, where she received an education that normalized racist policies toward tribes, and where a boarding school built to assimilate Native youth still operates.
“To form a movement because other people aren’t feeling like they have a voice in the state, while completely disregarding this reality and how effective it’s been towards Indigenous people? That is the gaslighting part,” she said. Miller asked McCaw a question: “Do you really think that people who are advocating for Greater Idaho are the most disenfranchised people in these communities?”
People clapped before McCaw could respond.
“A strong majority of people in eastern Oregon do want this to move forward,” he said.
“But is the answer yes or no?” Miller pressed. “Are they the most disenfranchised?”
“I have no idea,” McCaw said.
Miller got the last word: She encouraged people to “hold onto each other and work it out.” The room erupted in applause.
McCaw didn’t join in. Instead, he sat perfectly still, his hands clasped tightly in his lap.
After months of planning, the cities founded the Selkirk Pend Oreille Transit (SPOT) system, bringing the first fare-free bus to the area. Anyone 13 and up can ride alone with routes that span the entire county. Many riders are teens and tourists who rely on SPOT buses to get up to the ski resort as […]