Why are Americans fleeing the West Coast for this deep red state? Freedom and friendliness

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This story is the second in a series examining the mass-migration of West Coast residents to Idaho. Read part one here.

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COEUR D’ALENE, Idaho — North Idaho can bring a bit of culture shock for new arrivals. Walking around Coeur d’Alene, Seth Horst was amazed by how many people made eye contact, smiled, and said, “Hi.” Many would even strike up a conversation.

“People want to interact, people want to engage with you,” he said. “I think that’s what’s missing in a lot of society, and I think that’s why people like it here so much.”

Horst, a former California Highway Patrol officer, and his family made that first trip to Coeur d’Alene in September 2020. Within three months, they sold their Chico home and moved to Idaho.

The Gem State’s population has grown more than 12% since 2018 as thousands of families, primarily from the West Coast, have made similar moves.

idaho population growth

Idaho’s population grew 12.14% from 2018-2023, according to the Census Bureau. Most of that growth was fueled by people from other states moving in to the Gem State. (Ramiro Vargas/Fox News Digital)

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Families who left California, Oregon and Washington for Idaho all echoed similar sentiments when speaking with Fox News. They wanted to leave behind what they viewed as oppressive policies in their home states and live in a place where they could be “left alone,” as Bryan Zielinski put it.

“It’s a very American culture,” said Zielinski, who left the Seattle area last year and recently opened a gun store in Post Falls, Idaho. “It’s a culture of the West. Of extreme freedom and prosperity.”

“We don’t need to impose California, Oregon and Washington garbage into Idaho,” he added. “We don’t need it. We’re perfect as we are.” 

Schools, Second Amendment and safe communities: “Where they could be free”

COVID restrictions, and Idaho’s lack thereof, were major factors that drove all the former West Coast residents Fox News spoke with east. But additional freedoms they found in Idaho won them over, and they weren’t bothered by new restrictions, like prohibitions on marijuana.

Nick Kostenborder and Ashley Manning, formerly of Portland, had a baby on the way in summer 2020 and were deeply unhappy with lockdowns and masking requirements. Government-imposed mask mandates didn’t end in Oregon and Washington until March 2022. Schools in all three West Coast states were among the last to re-open for in-person instruction.

By contrast, Idaho approved reopening plans in July 2020 and never had a statewide mask mandate. Lawmakers twice tried to pass legislation explicitly barring the government from ever requiring face masks in the future.

Manning recalled visiting North Idaho in November 2020, a couple of months after the couple’s son, Taylor, was born. Businesses were open. People were out in public, laughing and talking without anything obscuring their faces. It seemed so alien nearly nine months into the pandemic.

“We were just blown away by how awesome it was,” she said. “That was what we were hoping for, but we didn’t know it was actually possible.”

They moved to Sandpoint the next April and soon befriended several other ex-West Coast residents.

“They wanted to be somewhere where they could be free,” she said. “And we just hope it stays that way.”

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Educational policies served as major catalysts for Zielinski, a conservative who previously lived in the Seattle area.

“My daughter’s educational health, my daughter’s mental health …. was being affected by just the garbage that is being taught in the public schools in Washington,” he said. The family moved to Idaho last June and Zielinski said his daughter, now 13, is getting great grades. More importantly, she’s happy again, he said.

Gun laws were another motivating factor for Zielinski, a vocal Second Amendment advocate who previously managed a large gun store in Washington, and opened his own a couple of months ago.

Washington has banned the sale of magazines capable of holding more than 10 rounds, as well as “assault weapons” — primarily semiautomatic rifles — and many of the parts used to build them.

Idaho, meanwhile, is one of nearly 30 states with constitutional concealed carry, has no laws regulating high-capacity magazines or so-called “assault weapons,” and even allows residents to own a machine gun as long as it’s registered, according to an NRA overview.

Man holds AR-15 in gun store

Bryan Zielinski holds a rifle in his gun store, North Idaho Arms. Zielinski moved to Idaho from the Seattle area last June. (Hannah Ray Lambert/Fox News Digital)

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It’s common to see people around town with guns prominently holstered on their hips.

“You go to Walmart, you’re going to run into 15, 20 people that are open carrying,” Zielinski said. “It’s awesome. You know what we don’t have here, is we don’t have all the goofy crime that you see in western Washington.”

He added, “Everybody’s happy. Everybody’s nice.”

Idaho has also tried to cash in on businesses and entrepreneurs fleeing its neighbors to the west. The Mercatus Center, a free market think tank at George Mason University, dubbed Idaho the “least regulated state” in 2020, after Gov. Brad Little announced the state had cut more than 1,800 pages of regulations.

“Idaho has been cutting regulations statewide while other states such as Washington [and] Oregon, have been adding regulations,” Sandpoint Mayor Jeremy Grimm said. “Although many regulations are good intentioned, they kind of live on forever.”

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There are plenty of areas where Idaho is less free than its neighbors, but those are tradeoffs many movers either agree with or are willing to overlook.

While West Coast states have passed sweeping mandates surrounding transgender kids, Idaho lawmakers instead enacted a ban on transition drugs and surgeries for most minors, which the U.S. Supreme Court last month allowed officials to enforce.

We don’t need to impose California, Oregon and Washington garbage into Idaho. We don’t need it. We’re perfect as we are.

— Bryan Zielinski

The U.S. Supreme Court is reviewing Idaho’s abortion ban, one of the strictest in the nation. And possession of more than 3 ounces of marijuana remains illegal in the Gem State, punishable by thousands of dollars in fines and up to five years in prison.

Such restrictions don’t bother Kostenborder, even though he identifies as a libertarian.

“The last thing I’m going to do is be the libertarian from Portland, show up here and be like, ‘Hey man, this place is way better than where I came from. Now, you know what you knuckle-draggers need to do is start doing things the way we did them in Portland,'” he said. “I’m not pushing for legal pot in Idaho. I don’t care. If they want to keep it illegal, that’s fine with me.”

“I see the Democrats as being far more oppressive than the conservatives,” he added.

Lake Pend Oreille and Schweitzer Mountain

The aptly-named Long Bridge stretches nearly two miles across Lake Pend Oreille and into Sandpoint, Idaho. (Getty Images)

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Much of Idaho’s allure lies outside of politics, according to families Fox News spoke with. It’s in the clean sidewalks and graffiti-free neighborhoods. The friendly banter with strangers and breathtaking scenery. The gut feeling one gets driving across the bridge spanning nearly two miles over the northern end of Lake Pend Oreille, Idaho’s biggest lake.

That last one is referred to as the “Long Bridge moment,” Grimm said.

“You drive across this bridge on a beautiful day, and you see the Selkirk and Cabinet mountain range and the lake,” he said. “And it’s one of those moments of arrival.”

Manning missed some elements of Portland after the move, particularly the food and abundance of entertainment options. But during the family’s most recent trip back to Oregon in April, she looked around and came to a realization.

“These aren’t our people anymore, because we feel so at home here and just like we belong,” she said. “In Portland, it’s just not the case anymore.”

kostenborder family photos

Left, Nick Kostenborder and Ashley Manning take a selfie with their son Taylor in front of the Sandpoint Statue of Liberty. Right, Taylor plays in front of the family’s home. (Courtesy Nick Kostenborder)

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Now, she commutes 10 minutes to a job she loves, where she feels free to share her opinions and be proud of her faith. She and Kostenborder have made friends with fellow expats, including those living right on their street.

“We felt like we had a family just within our own neighborhood,” she added.

Ramiro Vargas contributed to the accompanying video.

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