By Lisa Morehouse
Up in Siskiyou County on the Oregon border, people say that anyone who calls San Francisco “Northern California” has it all wrong. This is the real Northern California. It’s a sprawling county which is home to the Klamath and McCloud rivers, and the majestic Mt Shasta, but it has barely 45,000 residents. So, here, the answer to the question “What’s government for?” all comes back to people’s relationships with the land.
There’s a phrase some people use to describe what used to dominate Siskiyou County’s economy: red meat and board feet. The first stands for cattle ranching, the second for the timber industry. There are only two lumber mills left in Siskiyou County, but in the north there are still plenty of cattle, tended by people like fourth generation rancher Doug Jenner. His biggest political concern is regulation. As government agencies like Fish and Game seek to protect species like the Coho salmon, Jenner says ranchers and alfalfa farmers who depend on irrigation face more regulations around water and land.
“We live completely different than the southern state,” Judy Grenstead says. “Those in Sacramento, they think they know, but they don’t. They haven’t a clue.”
Jenner feels that many urban government workers and voters around the state don’t know the impact on ranchers. “This country was more or less based on agriculture and industry and resources from land,” Jenner says. “Things have changed to the point, now it’s a lot of technical stuff: iPads, telephones. People are so removed from the land, they just don’t understand.”
Voters hear about endangered fish and animals, he says, and — like ranchers — want to save them. “But before you vote and put your check down, you have to know what’s behind it all.” He feels outvoted by Californians who don’t work the land.
Twenty miles from Jenner’s ranch, a group of retired women meet at a Thai restaurant in Yreka. The friends gathered around the table reflect a growing share of the county: the elderly. They talk about news over lunch every Wednesday. Today’s first topic is water: all oppose removing dams on the Klamath River, a local issue that gets statewide attention.
“We live completely different than the southern state,” Judy Grenstead says. “Those in Sacramento, they think they know, but they don’t. They haven’t a clue.” While she speaks, her friends nod their heads. While they don’t all share party affiliation, they do review voter guides together every election.
Retired teacher Judy Washington starts her list of political wants and concerns by saying Siskiyou needs “some kind of an economic infusion to offer jobs to people.” A number of these women have children who have moved out of the county to find work. That demographic change means fewer kids in schools and, in turn, local districts have less money.
Maxine Hurley, another former teacher, worries about her retirement funds as ewll as her own health. “Health care, getting all the help we can for hospitals, those things are important to us at our age,” she says.
Health care is also important to Coy Wilmore, a home health care supervisor based in the town of Mt. Shasta. Twenty-five years in the field have made him a supporter of Obamacare. He’s seen budgets slashed but medical needs increase — things that are particularly problematic for folks in Siskiyou County. “It’s a large Medicare population,” Wilmore says, “very independent people who — for the majority — don’t seek health care until they’re very sick.”
That stubborn independence shows up across political ideologies in Siskiyou County. At the Mt. Shasta Ski Park, there’s a crew performing off-season maintenance on ski lifts while Andy Aguilera, who runs this business with his family, looks on. He’s a Republican, but he’s not waiting for politicians to boost Siskiyou’s economy. “The way I look at it is — I’m really not happy with anybody,” he says.
Much of the business in Siskiyou, tourism and traditional agriculture, is weather-dependent. “We’re a lot like farmers,” Aguilera says. “They’re dependent on the rain, and we’re dependent on the snow.” He employs about 300 seasonal workers but Aguilera hopes year-round recreation — like ropes courses and zip lines — could create more jobs in tourism. On the Economic Development Council he’s pushing for a county-wide network of mountain biking trails. “I just want to see everyone do better,” he says. “Bring industry, brings tourists. Keep our generations here. Bring new families here. That would be the ultimate.”
On the road from the ski park, Aguilera’s mountain manager, Richard Coots, clears brush. He’s a Democrat, but says Democrats here are different than in the cities. A couple days ago, he killed and skinned two deer. “Most Democrats probably don’t even own a gun,” he says. He counters statements by conservatives that Obama threatens this aspect of rural living. “He hasn’t taken my guns!”
When he votes for Obama, Coots will be in the majority statewide. But in local races, he’s consistently out-voted. “Being a Democrat in a county like this, most of us are pretty quiet,” says Coots. His politics, though, are shaped by this place. Most of Siskiyou County is federal land, and people here deal with a lot of government agencies.
Coots thinks those agencies are top-heavy, so he’s conflicted about tax initiatives. One thing he’s clear about is what matters most in Siskiyou. “It’s all about the natural resources,” he says. “It’s all about the quality of life surrounding the natural resources, the forest and the mountain. So why can’t we just work it together? Put your personal biases away and look at the big picture.”
Really, he says, regardless of political party, people here should agree on that.