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New Trouble Brewing In the Great State of Jefferson
Michael McCabe, Chronicle Staff Writer
September 13, 1998

Up in the far northern counties of California -- where citizens have always been suspicious of the federal government -- the land of big trees, big fish and Bigfoot is on edge over fears of a land grab

Happy Camp, Siskiyou County -- Fear and loathing fill the air these days like campfire smoke in this beautiful north woods country on the Oregon border.

Bigfoot is back in the woods somewhere, and the locals call it ``The Nymphs'' -- shorthand for the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The fisheries service, according to just about every property owner you talk to up here, wants to gobble up people's land. The agency says it just wants to save the endangered coho salmon -- it blames the talk on hysteria.

But many people up here are convinced that this is another government bureaucracy bent on killing off whatever is left of a faltering economy already seriously endangered, thanks to the near-eradication of logging, mining and fishing.

This is not Clinton-Gore country.

``The basic problem is they want to herd everyone up here into the city, and give areas like this to the critters,'' said George Swem, 71, owner of G&L Tire Service in Happy Camp.

There are whispers of armed revolts and violence, and there's even talk of secession popping up among the most outraged, just as there was 57 years ago, when men and women made plans for the great State of Jefferson.

It was and is, of course, a dreamy solution. Or, as one pamphlet puts it, ``The State of Jefferson, a Dream that Died: Or Did It?'' It is a mythical place where denizens of the north can secede to a state of mind, free to direct their own destiny. The topic is bandied about, only half seriously, in bars and restaurants, more nowadays than at any time since 1941. That was the year a handful of locals issued proclamations of independence to protest the state's refusal to build new roads in the region.

In November 1941, a month before World War II blew the issue away, The Chronicle's Stanton Delaplane covered this region's secession movement, and his four-part series about ``gun-toting miners'' barricading the highway won a Pulitzer Prize.

``Motorists were stopped by huge signs reading: `Stop -- State of Jefferson,' '' Delaplane reported in his first story, datelined YREKA (State of Jefferson) on November 27. ``Booted mining men of Yreka passed out handfuls of yellow Proclamations of Independence. `Patriotic Jeffersonians intend to secede each Thursday until further notice,' it read.''

The seething resentment more than a half century ago is echoed in the anger today: the conviction that government and the world outside is taking advantage of a little-known county already in deep economic trouble.

The specific issue enflaming passions this time are new rules that the fisheries service is proposing to help protect the habitat of the silvery coho salmon, which spawns in the Klamath River and its many creeks and tributaries along Highway 96, after swimming upstream for hundreds of miles from the Pacific Ocean.

As many as half a million coho once swam up more than 500 coastal streams in Northern California. But their numbers have plunged as a result of damage to their spawning habitat by human activities. Today, only about 5,000 wild coho are left in the state.

In April 1997, the coho was listed as `'threatened'' on the Endangered Species List. Not surprisingly, it is along the sylvan banks of these rivers and streams that most of the people live.

``The Klamath River Highway is one of the most scenic in the West,'' Delaplane wrote in 1941, and it still is. ``It wanders in a brown sand ribbon through the tall, piney mountains alongside the Klamath River, rushing in white water toward the sea. It runs through people's back yards and dives into canyons. It crosses weather-beaten bridges of 10-ton limit.''

In 1998, the locals believe that these new fisheries agency rules, which will be finalized in November, will drastically restrict what they can and cannot do with their private property. Just as the Endangered Species Act prohibits the ``taking'' of endangered fish, they insist that the government is ``taking'' their land.

Fisheries agency officials insist that their intentions have been deeply misunderstood, and they blame several unnamed individuals and groups in Siskiyou County for spreading misinformation that has created near hysteria.

``This is not a land grab, absolutely not,'' protested Jim Lecky, NMFS assistant regional administrator for protected resources. ``We are not proposing to come in there and tell people that they can't use their land. We want to work with them. The people up there just don't believe the government.''

The proposals as now written put restrictions on land within coho salmon critical habitat. The restrictions affect land along the riparian ways extending 300 feet from any river or creek edge to the high-water mark, which in many cases takes in whole tracts of land and even whole towns, like Happy Camp.

And this 300-foot buffer zone, Siskiyouans quickly point out, doesn't affect them only. It would apply to critical habitat for coho extending all the way down to Santa Cruz County and parts of southern Oregon. They believe that in California, they are the frontline of defense against this federal bureaucracy -- the first to recognize the threat -- and that as other counties wake up, they too will be close to taking up arms, or at least to talk of seceding.

``There are a lot of people who moved up here for a reason, to be left alone,'' said Doug Hirsch, 49, who owns a 31-acre ranch on the Klamath River at Horse Creek. ``There are generations of people who live in the back country on streams and creeks. And now they aren't going to be left alone. It has a potential for violence. I hope it doesn't happen.''

In the county, 26 percent of its 43,000 residents receive some kind of public assistance, county officials say. Even in a region where economic pain is endemic, Happy Camp has been listed by the Washington D.C.-based National Association of Counties as one of the 10 most endangered communities in America in 1995, the last year the survey was done.

All along Highway 96, officially proclaimed ``The State of Jefferson National Forest Scenic Byway,'' which winds back and forth following the wild and churning Klamath River, For Sale signs stick out from picture-perfect properties city slickers would die for. The desperation to sell is the direct result of the uncertainty over what the agency is going to do, coupled with the lack of jobs in the area, where the unemployment rate is around 13 percent.

They are interlaced with signs announcing ``State of Jefferson Signs,'' ``No NMFS'' and ``Don't Tread on Us.'' There are also scores of signs and bumper stickers that hark back to the 1941 secession movement: circles with two Xs and cross marks to indicate the historical double cross that people in Siskiyou County feel has been their collective lot in dealings with government.

And to get the message across to the thousands of vehicles that travel north on I-5, a huge sign welcoming visitors to the State of Jefferson -- the letters are more than eight feet high -- was recently painted on a hay barn roof four miles south of Yreka.

``I want people to know they are passing by a very historic area,'' said Brian Helsaple, 53, who, with the help of his 18-year-old nephew Ross, painted the sign. ``And I'm hoping the State of Jefferson idea will give this area a badly needed sense of identity, so we can fight this.''

Because of the uncertainty over the agency's plans, no one is buying any property and no one can sell -- and there are plenty who want to get out.

``I'll tell you how serious this is,'' said Chuck Atkins, who runs the River Connection Realty, along with Thompson Creek Lodge, on the Klamath seven miles west of Seiad Valley. ``I just returned from a weeklong trip to Oregon looking for a job.

``These new rules from the NMFS have totally devastated the real estate market. I think what they want is to get everyone off the river. They closed off logging, they cut off fishing and now they want to take our land. They're just regulating us to death.''

Atkins, 52, said business at his Thompson Creek Lodge is off 80 percent. Even he is trying to sell his property but can't find a buyer for his 24 acres overlooking the Klamath River.

``It's a gorgeous place to live, though it's always been hard to make a living up here,'' Atkins said. ``Now it's impossible.'' Fisheries service officials in Long Beach insist they are surprised and frustrated at the intensity of feelings over the issue. Since the proposals were first made public last November, the agency has received more than 5,000 letters and e-mail responses, most of them negative, said Craig Wingert, team leader at the agency for the California Protected Species Program.

``I have talked to lots of people up there, and I think they see it as a kind of blanket regulation that has the potential to cause problems,'' Wingert said. ``They have let their imaginations run wild and let other people feed that fear -- and perhaps rightly so, because who trusts the federal government today? Maybe if I was in the same position, I would feel the same way.''

Frankly, Wingert said, many working within the agency would ``dearly love'' to just drop the whole thing, except that the Endangered Species Act forces the agency to identify critical habitat, and that has led to the 300-foot rule.

While the rules are complex, the core of the misunderstanding, according to Wingert, seems to lie in how the 300-foot rule would be applied. In general, he said, it doesn't even apply to private citizens, unless they have some contact with the federal government in whatever they are planning to do within the 300-foot buffer zone.

``If you are a private citizen, the requirement that you not modify coho critical habitat simply doesn't apply to private citizens per se, if it doesn't bring them into contact with a federal agency,'' Wingert said.

That means, he said, if a private property owner, for example, wants to put in some kind of structure in the river that requires approval by the Corps of Engineers, then the agency may be brought in to decide whether any changes, delays or mitigation are required.

However, ``a landowner needs to be aware that if habitat modification or degradation harms a listed species it would be a violation of the law,'' William T. Hogarth, fisheries service regional director, wrote in a letter in July to the Siskiyou Daily News., headlined ``NMFS Finally Explains. There is Nothing To Worry About!''

But as to whether the rules would interfere with a private property owner who wanted to put in a deck within the 300-foot zone, or replacing a culvert, say, Wingert said, ``I don't see that happening.''

All that is not nearly enough reassurance for many of the people in Siskiyou County, who fervently believe they have been on the losing end of a long history of bad dealings with government in general. They declare that the coho is in trouble mainly because of excessive fishing by foreigners, harbor seals and sea lions off the coast, and very little, if at all, by damage to the riparian habitat.

``The 300-foot `critical habitat' designation is like a line drawn in the dirt, a measurable mark of the high tide of current regulatory takings, be it actual or perceptual,'' said Marcia Armstrong, executive director of Siskiyou Farm Bureau.

``It provides a focus, a rallying point, that has caused an awakening and voice to the accumulated frustration and anger at the thousand cuts that local people have endured. It is therefore natural that it will be articulated with a dozen other issues and fears.''

That kind of cold emotion sounds curiously familiar to the situation that ``Jeffersonians'' feel they have confronted for years. Indeed, the idea of secession is part of its history. There have been at least 45 proposals to split the state.

The most recent idea came in 1992, when Assemblyman Stan Statham (R-Redding), struck a chord among discontented rural voters by sponsoring ballot measures to divide California into three states, northern and southern halves.

In 1941, it was a protest over a lack of roads that was behind the drive by four California counties -- Siskiyou, Shasta, Del Norte and Modoc -- along with Curry County in Oregon, to form the 49th state. ``All through the border counties, they have minerals for defense and lumber for housing,'' Delaplane wrote. ``But there are no roads to bring them out . . . highway signs bore the new state seal -- a double cross on a mining pan, to commemorate their forgotten status in the State Capitols.''

Double-crossed is how many in the county feel today.

Doug Cole, who owns the Marble Mountain Ranch in Somes Bar, where he arranges for adventure trips to the back country on horses, worries that the fisheries agency will put him out of business.

``I've heard from some people that boating may be illegal because it might traumatize the fish where they spawn,'' Cole said. ``We feel it is an insult as well as a direct threat to our survival -- it breeds animosity.''

Added Joe Foster, of Happy Camp, who has lived in the area all his life and whose family goes back four generations: ``I've been down this road before. Like with the spotted owl, the government takes a little bit here and a little bit there, and soon, before you know it, I was regulated right out of my logging business.''

Felice Pace, one of the few outspoken environmentalists in the county, has his own theories about the spread of what he calls ``false and untrue horror stories.''

``This is all part of a carefully thought-out political effort to defeat or weaken the Endangered Species Act, which is due to be considered for reauthorization in Congress,'' said Pace, executive director of the Klamath Forest Alliance, an environmental group based in Etna. ``I've lived up here for 24 years, and I think that most of the people who are angry over this are well-meaning. They truly believe the NMFS is going to infringe on their rights.

``But, the sky is not going to fall. I am confident no one is going to be put out of business. Hopefully there are going to be some changes in the way we do business that will result in the recovery of the coho salmon and other fish, which is the key to prosperity on the Klamath: recreation.''

Countered Armstrong of the Farm Bureau: ``People have had it up to here, and they are alarmed at the obvious -- the rapid approach of nationalization of their property. All they will have left is a hollow title to their property and the responsibility to pay taxes on it.''

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