Failed secession movements litter the West

Will they ever succeed?

  • An American and a Colorado state flag fly alongside pumpjacks in Weld County, Colorado, one of 11 rural counties in Colorado with secession initiatives on their November ballots.

    51st State Initiative
  • 1940s poster for the state of Jefferson, proposed for southern Oregon and Northern California.

    Lost States (courtesy)
 

The Colorado State Capitol in Denver is only 65 miles southwest of Greeley, Weld County's seat. But for Weld County Commissioner Barbara Kirkmeyer, it might as well be in New York City. Denver's glassy skyscrapers and choked highways stand in stark contrast to the flat, hardscrabble prairie of northeast Colorado, where nearly 80 percent of the state's oil is now produced.

The boom has repaid the county with jobs and a balanced budget. Still, many locals feel abandoned and outnumbered by state lawmakers that are as distant ideologically as they are geographically. For instance, Weld County received just 1 percent of state transportation funds this year for local projects, Kirkmeyer says. "And we've got some roads up here that are in terrible shape," adds Butch White, mayor of Ault.

Feeling snubbed is nothing new in Weld. But this year, as Denver lawmakers approved plans for recreational marijuana sales, stricter gun control and a green energy mandate, the anger that had quietly simmered in northeast Colorado reached a boiling point. On Nov. 5, Weld and 10 other rural counties will vote on an initiative to secede and form a new state, to be called New Colorado, or perhaps North Colorado. They may settle for annexation to Wyoming.

The driving sentiment is "taxation without representation," says Michael  J. Trinklein, author of Lost States, a history of American secession movements.  "It's why we have the U.S. today, and it's the same phenomenon."

Though northeast Colorado has been ridiculed for taking its "silly secession sideshow" a step too far, the rebellion has brought national attention to this oft-overlooked region. A New York Times reporter had coffee at Nan's Convenience Store; the Los Angeles Times hung out at a local antique shop. Journalists have been quick to point to similar movements in Maryland and Michigan as evidence that rural disenfranchisement, fueled by growing urbanism and bitter partisanship, is driving the greatest wave of secessionism since the Civil War.

But the historical record shows otherwise. "The only reason we think it's a big deal now is we have short-term memories," Trinklein says. "Trying to decide who should be a state and who shouldn't is part of our American culture."

Secession is often painted as a rural, right-wing phenomenon, but it's seduced liberals and conservatives alike. Former Tucson Mayor Thomas Volgy still has a Baja Arizona sticker on his door from 1986 – the year he and other Pima County liberals began talking about separating from northern Arizona. "The political and cultural differences between us and the rest of the state run pretty deep," Volgy says. "We're like an island of 21st century thinking in a 19th century sea."

Left-leaning, cactus-loving Pima County has long been at odds with its gun-toting, lawn-growing neighbors to the north, and when politicians in Phoenix balked at adopting Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the '80s, southern Arizonans tried to break free. Over time, the movement fizzled, but in 2011, facing extreme crackdowns on immigration and politicians who rejected gun control even after the shooting of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, it gained new momentum.

Volgy calls secession the "least productive outlet" for political dissent because it's bound to fail. "If we'd been successful, we'd have been in a lot of trouble," he chuckles. Yet Paul Eckerstrom, a Tucson public defender, says the movement did succeed, in a way: "Every media outlet in the state was talking to us. We got national attention that we're not all the same here in Arizona." The state has since become more moderate, and Eckerstrom thinks the Baja movement helped.

The West has long been fertile ground for secession movements, in part because the struggle to control resources is especially pitched in arid, mineral-rich states. Two efforts over the last 70 years to separate Northern from Southern California sprang from water disputes, and a 1990s bid to divide Kansas stemmed from the distribution of oil and gas revenue, Trinklein says.

Northern Colorado is much the same: Though the feelings driving secessionism run deep here, it was water and oil that brought them to the surface. Locals were already fed up with Front Range cities buying agricultural land and sucking it dry. Then, lawmakers this year passed a bill requiring rural electric co-ops to double the amount of energy they receive from renewables – a seeming slap in the face to folks riding Weld County's fossil fuel boom. "We're losing more and more control," Mayor White says. "I feel sorry for my children. We don't have enough of a population that we're getting fair representation."

To form the 51st state, though, New Colorado needs approval from Old Colorado, then the blessing of the U.S. Congress and, finally, of the president. Given the revenue Weld County coughs up, White doubts they'll make it past even the first hurdle. Instead, New Colorado is likely to join the list of failed secession movements that litter the West, from a 1970s Navajo Nation statehood initiative to the perennial push to create the state of Lincoln in northern Idaho and eastern Washington. Although none have gained real traction, growing urbanization, drought and political polarization might well mean that the current wave has yet to crest.

And who knows? One day, the rebels might succeed. Says Vermont secessionist Rob Williams: "American colonists didn't wake up and say, 'Today's the day we're going to secede!' As John Adams said, 'The revolution began in the hearts and minds of people long before the first shot was fired.' "

Update added Nov. 11: On Nov. 5, five out of eleven counties in northeast Colorado that voted to pursue secession approved the measure. Weld County was among those that rejected it, along with Logan, Sedgewick, Elbert, Lincoln and Carson counties. Washington, Phillips, Yuma, Kit Carson and Cheyenne counties voted in favor. While this doesn't necessarily spell doom for the secession movement the five counties who support secession all share borders and could conceivably form a state the size of Vermont their chances of gaining approval from the state legislature seem lower than ever.