Rural Oregon’s movement to join Idaho has momentum, but little hope of success

Keaton Ems has deep roots in Oregon, but he’s now working to annex a huge swath of the state to Idaho.

The third-generation Oregonian loves the land he calls home. His grandfather, Victor, was the first person to plant Christmas trees west of the Mississippi River and started an industry-based society for other tree farmers. Ems, now 30, would go on to become a Christmas tree farmer himself and even took up a brief stint as a horse breeder.

But Ems said the leaders of his state are out of touch with the everyday lives of rural Oregonians like himself, so he has joined a growing movement that aims to split 21 counties off from Oregon and place them under Idaho’s governance.

So far seven have voted to join, with five additional counties gathering petition signatures to get the movement’s proposal onto the ballot.

“Nobody from the valley between Portland and Eugene understands what goes on in these rural parts,” Ems told USA TODAY. It’s led to a growing urban/rural “imbalance of power,” he said.

Although Ems spent some time as a part-time policy analyst in the Oregon legislature, he said he’s been dismayed by what he’s seen come out of the governing body.

“Some of the policies that they put forward and then they enact have no benefit or have an undue burden for these rural counties,” he said.

But the Greater Idaho Movement faces a daunting path: its ambitious proposal requires the approval of both the Oregon and Idaho legislatures, followed by the approval of the U.S. Congress. 

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Efforts to redefine state boundaries are nothing new. Among the most high profile: multiple movements have aimed to split California.

However, Ems said that unlike most secession movements based in the Pacific Coast, rural Oregon is not seeking its own statehood through the Greater Idaho Movement.

“We’re proud to be Oregonians,” Ems said. “We love the land that we live on, and we wouldn’t want to leave or put up a stand or ostracize ourselves in any way. We just want to talk about simpler issues, and that’s why we believe that Idaho would be a better jurisdiction for our citizens to be under.”

Experts say the movement is a long shot. Organizers say it’s still worth a shot.

Why Idaho?

Mike McCarter, who serves as president of Citizens of Greater Idaho, said the movement just wants fair political representation, and that’s more likely found in Boise than Salem.

“It has been talked about for many years how eastern Oregon and southern Oregon are more like Idaho than they are to northwest Oregon,” McCarter said. “Their lifestyles, their attachment to their lands – those traditional values of people who live out in space, in open lands, feel that they’re more aligned with the people in Idaho.”

Sandie Gilson, 53, is a fierce proponent of the movement. She said self-determination – the ability to choose one’s political representation – is a core tenet of the Greater Idaho Movement and gives her hope that it will ultimately succeed.

“Our country was founded on the people choosing the government that they wish to follow,” Gilson said. “That is the main principle of what is going on with the movement. It’s the people saying how they want to be governed, and that was one of the founding principles of the American Revolution: that we wanted a choice to say how our government represents us.”

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Joseph Lowndes, a political science professor from the University of Oregon, said that while the ideal of self-determination may be an attractive concept, living in modern-day democracy often entails dealing with long-established political boundaries. 

“In an abstract sense, people should be represented however they see fit, but people live in actual polities that they didn’t create themselves and live in municipalities, live in states, live in countries,” Lowndes said. “Practically, in democracies, people can’t just pick up and leave and choose another government whenever they feel like it.”

The Greater Idaho Movement, originally conceived in 2019, is a multi-county effort from rural Oregon that aims to bring 21 rural Oregon counties under the governance of Idaho. To date, seven counties have voted in favor of the movement's proposal, with five counties voting affirmatively last month. (Photo: Citizens of Greater Idaho)

Will rural Oregon actually join Idaho?

Experts say almost certainly not.

William Curtis, a constitutional law professor from the University of Portland, points out that Idaho’s boundary as a state is defined by its state constitution, so the Idaho legislature would have to amend its constitution to incorporate these Oregon counties.

While the Greater Idaho Movement has made strides at the ballot box – a third of the counties it aims to annex have already voted in favor of the movement’s proposal – Curtis said these collected votes have no decisive power in authorizing the annexation.

“The votes that they’ve had don’t have any political power,” Curtis said. “It’s almost like polls. They’re just indicating the support in these seven counties that a majority of the people … do wanna go join.”

Zachary Price, a constitutional law expert from the University of California Hastings College of Law, said the complexity of the movement’s proposal – navigating between these different governmental bodies – poses a hindrance to its success.

“I think the process makes it pretty difficult, and I assume generally it would be hard to get through all three of those hurdles,” Price said.

Experts are not the only ones who have their doubts.

Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney said that while the notion of these rural counties leaving the state concerns him from an emotional standpoint, the possibility of the legislature accepting the movement’s proposal is unlikely.

“I don’t think we would, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t act like it wouldn’t happen, because if we act like it, then maybe we’ll really sit down and really think real hard about this rural-urban divide,” Courtney said in a December 2020 interview with ABC affiliate KATU-TV.

Idaho Gov. Brad Little said he acknowledges the shared values between Idaho and rural Oregon, but the likelihood of annexation is slim.

“The local area has to endorse it,” Little said to a group of reporters last month, according to Spokane Public Radio. “The state legislature in Oregon has to endorse it; the state legislature in Idaho has to endorse it. Probably the biggest hurdle is the U.S. Congress has to vote on it.”

What Oregon might look like if the Greater Idaho Movement’s proposal succeeds may be dramatically different than the state’s current geography. (Photo: Citizens of Greater Idaho)

Are organizers giving up?

The long odds aren’t deterring leaders of the Greater Idaho Movement, despite the uncertainties that lay ahead.

“Moving the border for 860,000 people who are going through a democratic, constitutional process … it’s very possible,” Ems, who now serves as vice president of government relations for Citizens of Greater Idaho, said. “And I wouldn’t be here talking to you today if it wasn’t moving ahead with a lot of weight and possibility.”

Ems said it’s currently difficult to create dialogue with Oregon legislators because the legislature is currently in session; however, there are “plenty of events on the books through the summer and fall” to meet and have discussions with these legislators.

Talks with Idaho legislators have become more of the focus, Ems said, because the Idaho legislature is currently not in session. Ems said there are plans to create a schedule of weekly meetings with a core group of these legislators, with the purpose of discussing the logistics of the movement and “developing stronger relationships.”

Mike McCarter, president of Citizens of Greater Idaho, speaks before an audience at one of the organization's events. (Photo: Citizens of Greater Idaho)

Gilson, who also works as a small-business owner, has hosted multiple rallies for the movement and gone door-to-door gathering petition signatures to get the movement’s proposal onto local counties’ voting ballots. With her heritage deeply enmeshed in the state of Oregon, Gilson said joining the movement was a difficult moral stance for her to take.

“My family’s been in this state for five generations, so it wasn’t an easy decision for me to do that,” Gilson said. “But I watched the value system of my family disappear within the government of Oregon, and it became unacceptable.”

Although the work of the Greater Idaho Movement has consisted mainly of advocating equal representation for rural counties in Oregon, McCarter said he’s open to the possibility that the movement’s proposal may not be the only answer to the problems faced by rural Oregonians.

“There may be another solution out there that accomplishes the same goal … to improve what’s going on in rural Oregon and/or the representation that we have that I’m not even aware of or any of our people are aware of,” McCarter said. “Maybe there’s a different way of leading the Oregon legislature where all counties have a voice.”

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