The nearly five-hour drive from the Sacramento area to Yreka, in Siskiyou County by the Oregon border, was a reminder not just of the immense size and beauty of California, but of the vast regional and cultural differences one finds within our 37-million-population state.
Sacramento is Government Central, a land of overly pensioned bureaucrats and restaurant discounts for state workers. But way up in the North State, one finds a small but hard-edged rural populace that views state and federal officials as the main obstacles to their quality of life.
Their latest battle is to stop destruction of four hydroelectric dams along the Klamath River – an action driven by environmentalists and the Obama administration. Most locals say the dam-busting will undermine their property rights and ruin the local farming and ranch economy, which is all that’s left since environmental regulators destroyed the logging and mining industries.
These used to be wealthy resource-based economies, but now many of the towns are drying up, with revenue to local governments evaporating. Unemployment rates are in the 20-percent-and-higher range. Nearly 79 percent of the county’s voters in a recent advisory initiative opposed the dam removal, but that isn’t stopping the authorities from blasting the dams anyway.
These rural folks, living in the shadow of the majestic Mount Shasta, believe that they are being driven away so that their communities can essentially go back to the wild, to conform to a modern environmentalist ethos that puts wildlands above humanity. As the locals told it during the Defend Rural America conference Oct. 22 at the Siskiyou Golden Fairgrounds, environmental officials are treading on their liberties, traipsing unannounced on their properties, confronting ranchers with guns drawn to enforce arcane regulatory rules and destroying their livelihoods in the process.
The evening’s main event: a panel featuring eight county sheriffs (seven from California, one from Oregon) who billed themselves as “Constitution sheriffs.” They vowed to stand up for the residents of their communities against what they say is an unconstitutional onslaught from regulators in Sacramento and Washington, D.C. In particular, they took issue with the federal government’s misnamed Travel Management Plan, which actually is designed to shut down public travel in the forests.
Plumas County Sheriff Greg Hagwood related the stir he caused when he said he “will not criminalize citizens for just accessing public lands.” Siskiyou County Sheriff Jon Lopey reminded the crowd that county sheriffs are sworn to uphold the Constitution “against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” These are fighting words.
Sheriff Dean Wilson of Del Norte County said he was “ignorant and naïve about the terrible condition our state was in.” He came to believe that people were being assaulted by their own government. “I spent a good part of my life enforcing the penal code but not understanding my oath.” Wilson and other sheriffs said it is their role to defend the liberties of the people against any encroachments – even if those encroachments come from other branches of government.
As someone who has covered law-enforcement issues in urban Southern California, it’s refreshing to hear peace officers enunciate the proper relationship between themselves and the people. Increasingly, law enforcement is based on an authoritarian model, whereby police have nearly unlimited power, and citizens must obey, period. It’s rare to hear peace officers who are willing to stand up against more powerful arms of the government in service to their oath to their state and county and who affirm that their job is to protect their citizens’ inherent rights. It’s even rarer to hear sheriffs complain about the excessive use of force by fellow officers, which was a theme on the panel when referencing federal agents.
I could pick nits. For all the complaining about the feds, Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosenko had just been quoted in the newspaper praising the Obama administration for its crackdown on medical-marijuana clinics, even though California law clearly allows them. One’s either for state control or not. I’m tired of conservatives who claim to be for states’ rights when it suits them, but against states’ rights on issues such as the drug war. Still, it was clear whose side the sheriffs were on regarding a battle that goes beyond the sparsely populated northern regions.
The people in Siskiyou were echoing points I’ve heard throughout rural California. As they see it, government regulators are pursuing controversial policies – i.e., diverting water from farms to save a bait fish, the Delta smelt, clamping down on carbon dioxide emissions to address global warming even if it means driving food processors out of the Central Valley, demolishing dams to increase a population of fish that isn’t endangered – without caring about the costs to rural residents.
When resource-related jobs leave rural areas, there aren’t many other ways for residents to earn a decent living. Society collapses, and poverty expands. There aren’t enough tourist-oriented gift shops to keep everyone gainfully employed.
I hadn’t been in Yreka long before someone related a popular joke: A federal agent shows up at a farm and demands to check out the property. The farmer says OK, but tells him not to go over to one pasture. Then the agent arrogantly tells him he has a badge from the federal Environmental Protection Agency and can go wherever he darn well pleases. The farmer says OK. A few minutes later, the agent is running for his life from a bull. The agent calls for help, so the farmer goes to the fence and yells: “Show him your badge.”
It’s funny but anger-inducing. We’ve got a real sagebrush rebellion brewing in rural California. Urban legislators can ignore it at their own peril.