ONTARIO, Ore. – The Snake River has formed the border of Oregon and Idaho for more than a century and a half, slicing through fields of onions, sugar beets and wheat that roll out for miles through Treasure Valley.
On the Oregon side, where Bob Wheatley has lived his entire life, are a collection of high-end cannabis shops, a new Planned Parenthood clinic and gas prices a dollar higher than those just over the river.
Across the river in the town of Fruitland, in western Idaho, new housing subdivisions stretch out for miles from the main streets. Agriculture, bottling and construction businesses that just months ago were based in Oregon are thriving. One of Fruitland’s new problems is building enough schools to accommodate the out-of-state arrivals, many of them from Oregon.
“Things have changed,” said Wheatley, who retired recently after five decades as a local pharmacist. “And it’s the politics that have changed fastest.”
These twin towns across an old border straddle a seam in the nation’s deepening political polarization, neighboring opposites living under starkly different laws. The river separates states that, perhaps more than in any other part of the nation, embrace the two parties’ most extreme positions on gun control, abortion rights, environmental regulation, drug legalization and other issues at the center of the American political debate.
The result in eastern Oregon, from the volcanic Cascade Range to this border town, is a sense of profound political alienation. The disaffection among conservatives has spawned a movement to change the state’s political dynamic in a novel if quixotic way – rather than relocate or change the politics, which seems impossible to many here, why not move the border and become residents who live under the rules of Idaho?
This is no small task.
Both the Oregon and Idaho state legislatures, which are controlled by Democrats and Republicans, respectively, would have to approve a border shift, which in this case would be the most significant geographically since western states began forming in the mid-19th century. The issue would then go to the U.S. Congress.
But as more than two dozen interviews across the state made clear, there is momentum behind the cause among a lightly populated region of ranch land, swift rivers, and vast pine forests. It is known formally as the Greater Idaho movement.
Twelve counties in central and eastern Oregon have voted in favor of local ballot measures that compel county leaders to study the idea of moving the border about 270 miles west. The movement envisions 14 full counties joining Idaho, along with parts of others.
A 13th county is scheduled to take up the question on the May ballot. The region accounts for less than 10% of Oregon’s population, but most of its territory.
The push to change the border is rooted in policy differences and a sense that, in Oregon, there will be no way for conservatives to influence the laws and regulations made by the elected representatives of the far more numerous Democratic voters who live on the western side of the Cascades.
Idaho offers a much more comfortable political home for eastern Oregon’s conservatives, who live in many of the most racially homogenous counties in the state. In nearly every county that has voted to explore joining Idaho, white residents account for more than 80% of the population.
The political contrast between the states is stark.
Oregon Democrats have a more than 30% edge in voter registration over Republicans, and Joe Biden won the state by 16 percentage points in 2020. Idaho offers a mirror image: Republican voters outnumber Democrats more than 5 to 1, and Donald Trump defeated Biden by 30 percentage points.
Both states have sent two senators from the same party to Washington – Democrats in Oregon, Republicans in Idaho.
At 74, Wheatley has been considering a move across the river for years, returning his wife, Chrystine, a retired nurse, to the state where she grew up. But he could not sell his home for enough money to buy something comparable in Fruitland, where prices are rising because of the Oregon arrivals.
In late 2020, Wheatley, never before a political activist, volunteered to gather signatures to place a measure on the May 2021 ballot compelling Malheur County commissioners to study joining Idaho. It passed easily.
“I told Chrys, ‘I can’t move you, but maybe I can move the border,’ ” Wheatley said. “So that’s what we’re trying.”
A sense of alienation
In many parts of the country, the divide between red and blue has prompted a resorting in which moving states has seemed simpler to tens of thousands of people than changing the party in charge.
The Greater Idaho movement may be among the most extreme versions of this trend. But deep-blue California is also experiencing pockets of red resistance to dominant Democratic rule.
El Dorado County, which bumps up against the southern tip of Lake Tahoe and the Nevada border, has been the venue recently for boisterous town hall meetings over whether to secede. Last year, San Bernardino County supervisors voted to study creating its own state. A movement to carve out a new “state of Jefferson” from parts of northeastern California has been simmering for more than a half century.
Here in Oregon, the divide is geographic and political.
Nearly 9 in 10 Oregonians live west of the Cascades along the Interstate 5 corridor, namely in the cities of Portland, Eugene and Salem, the capital. But the western region accounts for a small fraction of the land, which unfolds east from the Cascades in expanses of sere high desert, lush pasture and thick forest.
Four state senators represent the east – less than a fifth of the chamber’s total – and earlier this year they were part of a six-week walkout to protest the terms of abortion rights and gun-control legislation. It was the longest such boycott in state history.
“There’s just a pervasive sense that the values that the western side of the state holds are being imposed, in a kind of oppression, on the east,” said Nicole Howard, a professor of history at Eastern Oregon University in the city of La Grande. “And the belief held out here is that either they don’t get us or they don’t care.”
Howard, who moved from California’s Bay Area more than a decade ago, said the term “rural” is often cited by eastern Oregon separatists as a way to contrast their beliefs with those who live in the western cities. Her school sought and received the designation as “Oregon’s rural university” to underscore its more conservative leanings.
“There’s a dog whistle in the term, too,” Howard said. “It is conservative versus liberal, but the issue of race is also baked into it. It gets to the idea of ‘rural’ as a stand-in for deep cultural touchstones.”
A ‘wake-up call’
In recent years, sharp policy differences have widened the divide between left and right.
Oregon legalized cannabis eight years ago and through a 2020 ballot measure decriminalized the possession of small amounts of heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine. Idaho continues to outlaw marijuana and the other drugs, consistent with federal law.
Abortion remains legal in Oregon. In Idaho, the Republican legislature passed a law last year that bans abortion after six weeks except in cases of rape and incest. In addition, the legislature passed a first-of-its-kind “abortion trafficking” bill that punishes health care providers with prison time for helping a minor secure the procedure out of state.
Oregon voters passed among the nation’s strictest gun-control measures in November, while Idaho gun laws are among the most permissive in the nation. Much of the Oregon agenda, including a law requiring that by 2035 all new vehicles sold in the state are electric, has been adopted despite the objection of the eastern counties.
“What we’re looking for is local control, not foreign control,” said Oregon state Sen. Dennis Linthicum, a Republican former software engineer and cattle rancher. “And by foreign I mean Portland, Salem and the rest of those in the west who have decided they know better than we do how to run our lives.”
Linthicum carried a resolution in the recent legislative session asking Oregon’s government to begin talks with Idaho on a border shift. The resolution never got a hearing. (The Idaho House passed a resolution that calls for the states to begin negotiating a change in the border. But the measure has stalled in the Idaho Senate, despite Republican control.)
Tina Kotek, a Democratic former speaker of the Oregon House who was elected governor last year, said in a statement that she believes “people need to see their governor and she is listening to them.” She has pledged to visit each of the state’s 36 counties on a “One Oregon Listening Tour,” which so far has included at least eight counties that have voted to study joining Idaho.
“She recognizes that it is a wake-up call for the whole state when people are frustrated enough about not being heard to consider joining another state,” the statement said.
In a statement on the same subject, Idaho’s Republican governor, Brad Little, said Oregonians are looking to his state “because of our strong economy, regulatory atmosphere and our values.”
But, Little added, “There’s a lot that needs to happen before moving the border is within the realm of possibility.”
Melissa Wintrow, the Democratic minority leader of the Idaho state senate, said the resolution did not get a hearing in her chamber because it had no chance of passing. But she said the divide – and how rapidly she said it is widening – is a concern especially in a part of the country where armed anti-government groups have acted on both sides of the border recently.
“This movement is a push for ideology over the real-world issues that we are facing,” said Wintrow, whose district includes the Idaho capital of Boise. “But any system that is out of balance, whether Republican or Democrat, is bad for our country.”
A release valve
From Powell Butte, Highway 26 twists through canyons and rushes past pasture, cattle more visible than people as it runs east through a long line of “Purple Heart Counties,” before reaching the town of John Day.
Just off the main street, Sandie Gilson, the movement’s vice president, sits behind a large desk in the business she owns with her husband. Gilson said she was once what she called “a welfare mom,” single and out of work and raising three children. She describes herself as a “Reagan conservative” unconcerned with some of the cultural battles animating national politics.
“I don’t care who you marry,” she said. “And while I believe we should be focusing more on preventing unplanned pregnancies and saving babies’ lives, abortion is not a major issue for me. You’re allowed to disagree with people. It’s okay. We’ve just forgotten that.”
What prompted Gilson to join the movement was a law that does not affect her directly.
In 2019, the Oregon legislature passed the “corporate activity tax,” which applies a levy on businesses that gross more than $1 million annually. The tax revenue is directed to education spending. What struck Gilson, though, was the bill’s explanation that the tax was being imposed “for the privilege of doing business in Oregon.” She says doing business is not a privilege, but a right.
“It affects our ranchers, our loggers, our local grocery store,” Gilson said. “It was pretty hard to swallow.”
John Day sits on the northern side of the Malheur National Forest where, in 2016, an armed group occupied the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. One of the men occupying the building was fatally shot by law enforcement during the 40-day standoff.
Gilson, who is 47, said the Greater Idaho movement is in part a way to head off future armed threats in a deeply disaffected region.
“We’re not angry, and we do not want this to come to violence,” Gilson said. “We want to do this peacefully, but there is no doubt there is a lot of anger out there. This movement can be a release valve.”
Even those unsure about the movement say they understand its causes.
In Wallowa County, which voted in May to study joining Idaho, Doug Long’s home flies a “Trump for President” banner alongside a smaller “Move Oregon’s Border” yard sign.
A former rancher, Long voted for the recent ballot measure. But he identifies strongly as an Oregonian, born and raised, and said, “I’m kind of in the middle on it, to be honest.”
“My hope,” he said, “is that it will put some pressure on Democrats to hear us.”
Connections across the river
Bob and Chrystine Wheatley’s family sits on all sides of the geographic divide.
One daughter now lives in Idaho. One son lives in Eugene, on the western side of the Cascades. Another daughter is here in Ontario, on the Snake River border.
The town of roughly 12,000 people, birthplace of the Tater Tot, has an economy based in agriculture, health care and the large state prison on its outskirts. But the city’s once-surging growth has stagnated, much of it as a result of cross-river migration into Idaho.
On both sides of the river, in Ontario and its Idaho mirror image, Fruitland, irrigated farmland is planted with onions, beets, wheat and corn. Cattle graze in broad pastures. There is cattle, too, on both sides. A billboard just outside Ontario proclaims, “Cowboy Lives Matter.” Up closer, though, the towns reflect the nation’s political divisions.
Planned Parenthood opened its clinic in Ontario in spring, following the Supreme Court’s decision last year to nullify abortion as a federal right and in response to Idaho’s strict abortion law passed soon after that ruling.
Weedology, the Bud House (formerly an auto body shop), Cannabis & Glass are just three of the most prominent marijuana dispensaries in Ontario, a draw for Idahoans as well as locals, judging by the license plates in the parking lots.
“They have brought in revenue,” Bob Wheatley said during a driving tour that spanned the river. “But I don’t think they have covered the cost of new police hires needed as a result of the crime that they have caused.”
There is no proof the dispensaries have led to more crime. But for the Wheatleys, the shops are just part of a larger disaffection, even distance, they feel for the place they have lived their lives.
The Wheatleys’ area code is 208, which is an Idaho area code. The Oregonian, based in Portland, no longer distributes newspapers in Ontario. Bob Wheatley said the couple used to get one Portland news station in their cable package, yet now even that has disappeared. Their county is in the Mountain time zone, unlike any other in Oregon.
“So much of our interaction is with Idaho,” Wheatley said. “So much of what we relate to, what’s consistent with our values, is now on that side of the river.”