‘Two Californias’ Ruled by One Distorted Vision
Steven Greenhut
by

Sacramento

Some pundits were aghast after a federal jury acquitted Ammon Bundy and several others for their roles in an armed standoff at a wildlife refuge in desolate eastern Oregon. They said the decision put targets on the backs of federal workers, opened the door to anti-government extremism, or was evidence of white privilege, because these white rural folks were presumably treated more sympathetically than black protesters.

The Bundys are largely unsympathetic characters. They make for an unconvincing group of “small-government” protesters, given their dependence on federal lands and below-market grazing leases. But the left’s critique was more a reflection of its typical hobgoblins than the facts of this particular case.

The main question that jumped to my mind, and brought up news events closer to home: How are rural people supposed to earn a living when almost all the surrounding land is owned “publicly” and managed by people hundreds or even thousands of miles away? Those living in the far northern reaches of California face a similar fate.

Public land ownership and environmental rules have largely shuttered the logging industry. A finalized deal to bulldoze dams and return the Klamath River to the wild will decimate what’s left of the agricultural industry in Siskiyou County, California, along the Oregon border. In that same region, county sheriffs have battled for years with federal and state land-management officials, who have restricted access to local hunting areas.

I’ve reported on water-management issues in California, in which the needs of a small number of fish take precedent over farm and human uses — even in the midst of a harsh drought. Many of these policies seem autocratic or insane, until one realizes the overwhelming population numbers. California has a population of 38.5 million people. Ten million of them live in one county, Los Angeles, which is more populous than 43 other states.

The Bay Area has nearly 8 million people. The San Diego region tops 3 million people and the Sacramento region tops 2 million, whereas the massive North State has little population. More than 95 percent of California’s population is urban, so it’s not hard to understand why the concerns of rural people get short shrift. This is true in other states, but more pronounced in this one.

Local writers often refer to the “Two Californias” — referencing the cultural, economic, and geographic disparities between the tony world highlighted on TV and the movies and the gritty agricultural and industrial world east of the coastal ranges. Silicon Valley entrepreneur Tim Draper proposed a statewide initiative turning California into six separate states. It made sense, from a wonkish point of view, even if it never had a big chance of qualifying for the ballot.

But from a land-use perspective, the real problem is that all of the political power is concentrated in dense urban regions, whereas the bulk of the land mass is rural, agricultural or “urban” in a Fresno or Bakersfield sort of way (i.e., poor, industrial, and decrepit). Rural Californians often chide urban legislators for wanting to shut down their economies and turn the Central Valley and other regions into little more than a nature preserve. That’s an exaggeration, but whatever one thinks of breaking up the state, there clearly is a “Two Californias” problem.

A couple of recent stories make the point. In Townhall.com, Victor Davis Hanson wrote about California Highway 99: “The 99 was recently ranked by ValuePenguin (a private consumer research organization) as the deadliest major highway in the nation. Locals who live along its 400-plus miles often go to bed after seeing lurid TV news reports of nocturnal multi-car accidents.”

The article grabbed my attention, not only because I’m one of those locals who lives near that freeway and depends upon it for most of my driving, but because of the reasons for its continuing state of disrepair. As Hanson explains, the state has been involved in a seemingly endless $1 billion renovation of this “highway of death,” but its real priority is the proposed $68-billion high-speed rail line that will begin in Fresno, along the 99 corridor. As he put it, “All societies in decline fixate on impossible postmodern dreams as a way of disguising their inability to address pre-modern problems.”

Indeed, California’s state government — thanks to the policy priorities crafted in those wealthy coastal mega-regions — is totally fixated on remaking the world. Its first-in-the-nation cap-and-trade policies — combined with a new law that more aggressively pushes for carbon-dioxide reductions — are all about prodding other states and nations into addressing climate change. One state cannot turn back global warming, after all. Unfortunately, these urban priorities are doing much to ensure the continued poverty of the Other California.

Proposition 1A, the 2008 statewide ballot initiative that authorized the High Speed Rail Authority to float nearly $10 billion in bonds to begin funding the train line, was sold to the public as a means to improve cross-state transportation. The initiative made myriad promises to voters (no operating subsidies, lots of private investments, speedy travel times, etc.). The current plan violates many of those, but the courts are allowing it to proceed, anyway.

Meanwhile, as high-speed rail opponent Morris Brown wrote recently in Fox&Hounds, the rail authority’s chief, Dan Richard, spoke at a conference last month in which he touted the rail plan’s efforts to create land-use changes. That’s nothing new. In 2014, Richard made this point in a letter to Congress: “High-speed rail around the world has proven to be a driver of transit and more sustainable land use practices. The Authority is committed to achieving these goals for greater cumulative benefits for the state.”

This is just the latest effort from the state government to restrict “urban sprawl” by mandating high-density housing in urban areas, while limiting development of open land. Presumably, Californians are supposed to get around by train rather than neglected highways such as the 99. Such policies have driven the state’s housing prices into the stratosphere, which causes California to have the highest poverty rates in the nation (based on the Census Bureau’s cost-of-living-based figures). The ideas are counterproductive in urban areas, but incomprehensible in rural ones, where agriculture, logging, and mining are — or at least were — major employers.

The Bundy protest was easy to mock and deserved much criticism, but core questions need to be answered. How are rural people supposed to survive in counties where almost all the land is owned or controlled by the feds? How are rural folks in California supposed to prosper when the politics of the state renders them irrelevant?

Steven Greenhut
Steven Greenhut
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Steven Greenhut is a senior fellow and Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at sgreenhut@rstreet.org.
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