BLAINE, Wash. — This tiny border town, where northbound Interstate 5 meets the 49th parallel on its way into Canada, may not know it yet but it’s at the center of something big — a mythical land named “Cascadia.”
It’s only a stretch of the imagination for a town accustomed to being in between things — Blaine’s main street has long catered to Canadian motorists stopping off for one last tank of cheap American gas on their way home from tax-free shopping sprees in the malls of nearby Bellingham, Wash.
But in the major cities along the Interstate 5 corridor, a grandiose vision of this frontier is emerging. The idea is to make the border disappear — or at least make it more porous — by integrating local economies into a transnational region, a Cascadian marketplace with enough population and combined financial clout to compete aggressively in the global economy.
Talk of Cascadia and the region’s common economic destiny is rising to a crescendo in think tanks and government offices from Portland, Ore., to Seattle to Vancouver, Canada. Rival groups and task forces are pondering the potential of cross-border regionalism. Cascadia is a hot topic, sizzling in the rain forests of the north.
What’s happening up here is exactly what isn’t happening along the border between Mexico and California, Arizona and Texas, where divisiveness over immigration problems and cultural chasms militate against a strong regional identity.
Duty-free border factories — the maquilladora phenomenon — may be creating a Southwestern alliance for global competition, especially with the North American Free Trade Agreement in sight. But affinity with Mexico remains a contentious matter for many Americans, in sharp contrast to the empathy binding western Canada with the Pacific Northwest.
Cascadians see themselves as simpatico — “children of a common mother,” as the inscription says on the Peace Arch at the Blaine border crossing.
Soon they will even have their own flag to hail. A glossy Vancouver-based business magazine, New Pacific, is sponsoring a contest for a Cascadian flag, offering a $2,000 award for the design readers like best. Entries submitted by subscribers on both sides of the border have favored the greens and blues of the region’s natural habitat.
Indeed, 11.2 million people in the core of conceptual Cascadia — Oregon, Washington and British Columbia — share a multitude of cultural values, most notably a passionate involvement with the environment and a laid-back style of doing business.
Cascadians of both nationalities also have a common mistrust of their remote federal governments on the eastern side of the continent, making a north-south alliance seem entirely reasonable.
The Cascadian vision is not without its detractors. Some Canadians simply don’t like the sound of the name, which apparently arouses visceral fears of a separatist movement in the style of Quebec.
Worse yet, the allusion to the Cascade Mountains on the U.S. side of the border smacks to some of Yankee hegemony. (In fact, the same mountain chain is called the Coast Range north of the border.)
Here in Blaine, meanwhile, Cascadia suffers from a distinct lack of name recognition. The clerk at a tobacco and espresso shop drew a blank at the word.
Down the street at Tony’s Diner, next to a palm reader in an old train caboose, the waitress had a flicker of recognition. “Cascadia? That’s a good question,” said Rochelle, who didn’t give her last name. “I don’t know exactly where it is, but I’ve seen it. My husband’s a truck driver, and I sometimes go along with him.”
In fact, there is a town named Cascadia in central Oregon, with a population of about 200 people.
But ask about greater Cascadia’s elusive coordinates at the region’s think tanks, and researchers will load up a visitor with maps, articles, speeches on the borderless economy and bureaucratic briefing books in three-ring binders.
“We’re not really talking about bulldozing the border,” said John Miller, senior researcher at Seattle’s Discovery Institute and a former Republican congressman who represented the city’s northern suburbs until January. “It’s about building a strategic alliance.”
If there’s a tangible skeleton on which to hang the flesh of the Cascadian dream, it could be Miller’s pet project: the high-speed railroad he wants to see connect Eugene, Ore., to Vancouver along the Cascadia corridor.
Amtrak axed its 4 1/2-hour Seattle-Vancouver route in 1981 because of border hassles and low ridership. But it plans to revive service sometime next year, getting the run down to 2 hours, 50 minutes with modest track repairs and higher speed limits.
Ultimately, Miller’s Cascadia Corridor Transportation and Trade Task Force hopes to galvanize the region with futuristic rail technology. Experimental magnetic levitation (maglev) trains like those in Japan and Germany could leave Amtrak in the dust.
Miller and Rep. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) led a successful effort to have the Eugene-Vancouver link designated one of five high-speed rail corridor studies funded by the federal government. Yet communication with Canadian authorities on the $15-billion project is off to a slow start, suggesting that Cascadia fever has a long way to go before it can produce a bilateral pork barrel.
“We’ve learned in the past year or two that tremendous political differences remain,” Miller said. “The Canadians don’t have our nonpartisan tradition for dealing with issues like this.” In other areas, cooperation is beginning to bear fruit, or at least seeds:
* Tourism officials in British Columbia and Washington state are teaming up to market the “Two-Nation Vacation,” a campaign primarily aimed at hooking big-spending Japanese visitors.
* A special “PACE” lane at the Blaine border crossing allows preregistered commuters with stickers on their windshields to zip past customs agents. They declare duties on the honor system, paying by credit card.
* The president of Vancouver’s stock market has proposed a “Cascadia Stock Exchange” to raise capital for regional companies.
* There’s even some preliminary discussion about joint marketing schemes for the region’s major ports, which now compete fiercely for Asian business — each claiming to be the “gateway to the Pacific.”
* Baseball’s Seattle Mariners are becoming the region’s most potent cultural symbol, possibly evolving into Cascadia’s home team. The Mariners suffer from low attendance, but the team’s new owners — a Seattle investment group led by Japanese-owned Nintendo — have noted huge turnouts of Vancouver residents when the Toronto Blue Jays come to town. So now the idea is to convert these Canadians into Mariner fans. The Seattle team hopes to play six to eight “home games” at B.C. Place Stadium in Vancouver next season, and it is in the process of negotiating broadcast deals in Vancouver’s television and radio markets.
“Keeping the Mariners economically viable in Seattle has become a Cascadia-oriented endeavor,” said Paul Isaki, the team’s vice president for business development.
While Seattle and Vancouver are locking in embrace, Portland seems to be the wallflower at the Cascadia ball. Nonetheless, Portland will host a Cascadian Task Force conference this month, with mayors and governors expected to attend.
“I guess Oregon is sort of on the periphery of Cascadia,” said Mark Clemons, an official with the Portland Development Commission. “But there’s still an opportunity here we can certainly take advantage of.”
Oregon is definitely part of the Cascadian coastal belt, where the region’s population is massed. From there, however, the definition of “Cascadia” gets muddled in a confusing debate over boundaries. And the concept itself is battered by a dispute over priorities — economic versus environmental.
One view is that the region encompasses the hinterland states and provinces of Alaska, Montana, Idaho and Alberta. These are grouped with the coastal states in an organization sponsored by local legislatures called the Pacific Northwest Economic Region (PNWER).
Never mind that British Columbia and Alberta are technically in the southwest of Canada. “Pacific Northwest” is an improvement for Canadians who associate Cascadia with U.S. imperialism.
“A lot of Canadians are terrified that American popular culture will overwhelm them,” said Roger Bull, the PNWER’s executive director and a former Canadian diplomat. “It’s not a feeling you can counter rationally because it’s an emotional force.”
As if to make things more difficult, a Vancouver think tank has come up with yet another definition, calling the region the “Georgia Basin,” after the Strait of Georgia off Vancouver Island. The emphasis in this view is on environmental planning and “sustainable” urban growth.
Tellingly, the Vancouverites’ map of the Georgia Basin encompasses Puget Sound and the Olympic Peninsula to the south. That’s an affront to Washingtonian sensitivities, especially after a recent environmental stink over the practice of dumping raw sewage into the sound by Victoria, British Columbia’s provincial capital on Vancouver Island.
Georgia Basin’s mastermind is Alan Artibise, director of the University of British Columbia’s School of Community & Regional Planning, who confesses that he personally prefers Cascadia as a term for the region. But he has to please his sponsors, the provincial government.
” ‘Cascadia’ is seen as an American term, but I think it’s a silly debate,” said Artibise, now on sabbatical with Vancouver’s International Center for Sustainable Cities.
Not all Yanks like the word Cascadia. Washington state Sen. Alan Bluechel, a veteran Pacific trader and founder of the PNWER group, chided a reporter for mentioning the C-word.
Bluechel sees his organization growing into a hands-on mechanism for public and private sector cooperation throughout the broader region, creating a cross-border market with its own industrial policy.
“PNWER is patterned after the theoretical concept of the European Community combined with MITI,” Bluechel said, referring to Japan’s powerful Ministry of International Trade and Industry.
Yet to David McCloskey, a sociologist at Seattle University, groups like the PNWER and New Pacific magazine with its flag contest have “hijacked” Cascadia.
McCloskey, an outdoorsman on a quest to chart the region, defines Cascadia in terms of its common watershed — “shorthand,” he says, for a distinct ecosystem.
The perimeter of McCloskey’s crescent-shaped Cascadia runs from the Alaskan Panhandle south to the Mendocino coast in northern California and as far east as the Continental Divide. The region abuts what geologists call the Cascadia Basin, an underwater terrain in the Pacific Ocean created by tectonic plates that moved the Earth’s crust 40 million years ago.
“I look at the ecological integrity of the region as a whole, where everywhere you go there are mountains with waters cascading to the sea,” McCloskey said. “Nobody knows what it’s all about, but there’s a regional culture emerging, spontaneously from all directions. I think it’s the land that’s doing it.”
The idea of an environmental utopia in the Pacific Northwest isn’t new. Many Cascadians credit Ernest Callenbach’s quirky 1975 novel, “Ecotopia,” as a seminal influence.
This work of eco-science fiction depicts a future in which Washington, Oregon and Northern California separate from the United States and create an isolated, semi-fascist state.
Call it Cascadia, Georgia Basin, Pacific Northwest Economic Region or Ecotopia, there’s an awakening along this stretch of the Pacific Coast that its people are somehow linked by destiny.
“If this region wants to grow, it’s essential that the various entities coalesce as a market,” said Charles Kelly, publisher of New Pacific. “Seattle can’t attain sufficient critical mass without Vancouver. This is driven by self-interest.” Exactly what it all means is still being sorted out.
“I’m curious why so many intellectuals have jumped on such an amorphous concept,” said Edmund Jensen, chief operating officer of U.S. Bancorp, the big Portland-based bank that recently opened a branch in Vancouver.
“I’d like to believe emotionally that a pseudo-nation exists in this thing called Cascadia,” Jensen said. “But it’s a discussion that goes best with a bottle of wine.”
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