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Open Letter to Ashland City Council on the Transfer of SUP to MAA

by Dr. Rick Kirschner on August 29, 2011

I write about clicking with people, the power of positive persuasion, the ability of individuals to make a difference.  I like examples, and I look for examples where people face difficult challenges and seemingly intractable problems.  Right now, I don’t have to look far from home. My city is dealing with a contentious issue that’s been around over a decade.  This week, the City Council will be faced with a big decision.  I think the history of this issue illustrates what can go wrong when communication fails, and my thoughts illustrate what might be possible if communication occurred.

If I could get 20 minutes of the Council’s time on this issue, I think I could really make a case worth considering on how to make the decision.  But there’s the rub.  As a citizen before Council, I would only get three minutes.  And lots of other people get three minutes too.  Many of them speak off topic, and the Council’s attention may wander.  It’s unfortunate, but it’s human, and that’s all there is to it.

I don’t know how this will turn out.  Sometimes, Councilors rise to the occasion, demonstrate exceptional clarity, conduct themselves in an exemplary manner, and do what they were elected to do…serve the public.  But then, sometimes, Councilors fail in their obligations to the community’s interests because of their own issues, biases and private obligations.  They make up their minds instead of keeping open minds, and take positions before the moment of decision, voting for their supporters instead of voting for the whole of the people.  I think it’s unwitting, like maybe they forget about doing the right thing, and fall into a pattern of doing the expedient thing.  When this happens, citizens are poorly served, and would be wise to vote such Councilors out of office at the first opportunity.  In the meantime, decisions get made and communities have to live with those decisions.

But if I could just have 30 minutes of their time.

And then it hit me.  I can.  Right here.  Right now.  I AM A BLOGGER!   I can have 45 minutes if I want them.  Well, maybe not of their time, unless they read my blog.  But I can have my say.  And so I shall!

If you’re interested in this example, or this issue, read this.  Even if I’m not writing about your community, this issue probably has parallels in your own.

Oh, one more thing.   I write for the pleasure of it, or because it helps me think.  That means I ramble a bit.  So who knows how long it will take? !!  I usually write long posts.  This one is going to be ridiculously long!  (OMG!  Just finished writing it, and it’s crazy long! You’ll see if you read it.)

Your comments and feedback are, as always, welcome.  And if you see things a different way than me, or know something about this issue that  you think I don’t, I’d like to hear it.  No flames, but both facts and feelings are welcome.  And if my words help you express yourself to the Council, please, help yourself, help us all.

Be well,

Rick

Here is my open letter to the City Council of Ashland, Oregon. 

Dear Mr. Mayor and City Councilors

I am a long time resident of Ashland. I raised a child here, built a home and a life here, and have encouraged many others to do the same.  I love this town, the people, the environment, the exceptional ability to think for ourselves that makes it all possible. From my work with a previous Council, I know how difficult your work is.  You have to make decisions that have both long and short term consequences, that have budgetary impact, and that can effect the quality of life here for generations to come.  In previous years, our town has committed itself to sustainability.  That value is now being called to the foreground as you make a decision on behalf of all of us, on what to do about the SUP (Special Use Permit).  I’m writing instead of taking up Council time, and offering my thoughts here instead of in your chambers. I’m hoping that gets me a little extra time.

Many citizens believe that the SUP, in the hands of the city, has had a preventive effect on the ability of MAA (the Mount Ashland Association or MASA, the Mount Ashland Ski Association) to proceed with the expansion into our watershed, in that there are certain donors with deep pockets who are unwilling to contribute large amounts of money so long as the city of Ashland is involved.  This idea came directly from an MAA board member a year ago.  If its true, and it makes sense to me for reasons I’ll explain below, then transferring the SUP would remove this impediment to development in our watershed, or even the sale of the property.  I believe this concern is why there’s been so much hand wringing about the SUP for so long.

If we were talking about the lease, the courts have clearly come down on the side of MAA having a lease that allows them to do what they want to do, so long as it is approved by the owner of the land, the Forest Service.  MAA sued the city of Ashland for meddling in their management, even though the meddling consisted only of the city trying to get specific answers to address specific concerns regarding the impact of development on our watershed. As a result of the negative interaction between the city and MAA, for whatever reason, and some say it’s the SUP, we now have an uncomfortable and potentially hazardous relationship.

If we were talking about the expansion, the only issue before the Council would be whether the expansion threatens the well being of the town by damaging the watershed.   A threat means the potential to do harm.   If the city believes there is a credible threat to the watershed, then the proper venue to stop MAA is  either in the courts, or in direct dialog with MAA and the USFS.

Maybe I’m wrong about this, but it appears to me that the MAA has shown little willingness or ability for real dialog.  I don’t know about the USFS.   I do believe that protecting watersheds is considered of great importance to our social well being.  I do know that the EPA in the original EIS said this expansion was a bad idea.  As far as I can tell, there’s really nothing in the updated EIS that addresses the EPA’s concern, other than the inclusion of the EPA document, as in, “Noted. Next?”  That’s frustrating.  It doesn’t even qualify as vague.

But the issue here isn’t the lease or the expansion.  It’s who should possess the SUP?   Clearly, it’s a valuable document, prized by opponents of expansion and advocates as well.

Perhaps, since the SUP is a document that MAA desires, and they have said that having it slows down their fund raising, then it’s more likely that this conflict can be resolved by dialog if the SUP remains in the hands of the city.  On the other hand, turning it over to them takes away from the city any chance of learning more about the ecological and economic impact of the development through dialog.  Then all we’re left with is to deal with the consequences.  Giving them the SUP might also allow them to sell the ski area, bring in another operator with less concern for the community and without the agreement of the city.  If MAA fails, the Forest Service could then appoint the new operator without our input.  In either case, the city is removed.  To what advantage? Removing ourselves from the conversation makes no sense.

Framing the Case I’m About To Make

Consider the world we live in.  All too often, ignorance trumps intelligence.  Too many people are backing into the future, and have no real regard for it.  Sustainability is considered too lofty and abstract a concept.  Decisions are made based on short term thinking and profits alone. There’s a lack of respect for critical thinking and consequences.  Teenagers sit on our streets smoking and panhandling,  their lives lacking in meaning, opportunity and example.   Adults are tossing back Egg McMuffins like pelicans swallowing fish while wondering at the ballooning cost of healthcare and insurance.  On almost every issue,  national policy serves the few at the expense of the many, and politicians seem tone deaf and irresponsible.

So I understand why so many of our citizens have become cynical, hopeless and afraid when petitioning their government.  I understand the intense emotions and the ability for rumors to spread like wildfire.  And as a result of trying to get my head around this issue, I understand that it is incredibly complex and that, without something different coming from MAA towards the city, in my opinion there are no good answers that break the Gordian knot.

So on what should you base your decision?  

I would base mine on the people’s concerns that the MAA has not, does not, and perhaps can not address, and the possibility that having something the MAA desires might lead them to be more forthcoming with information.  Concerns that include:

1.  This is our watershed that we’re talking about.  The source of our water.  Not just our water, but the water for our children and their children.  We can leave them enough resources to have a good life here where we’ve made ours, if we are good stewards of our resources.  And there’s the problem.  It’s the idea that a private group wants to permanently alter the watershed for benefits that are purely speculative.  This has rattled many out of complacency and into action.  That’s why you’re seeing this kind of turnout.

Perhaps you dismiss this turnout as not representative of the community’s interest, because it doesn’t match your own interest.  But look around.  These people did show up. They care.  They are paying attention.  It’s a big deal, people’s lives are so incredibly busy already.  Several hundred people marching to your chambers on ANY issue should convince you that many people in our community are afraid of this development.

And you know, they could be right.   If MAA would just open up to the community, tell the worried people they won’t destroy the watershed or the town, that they are paying attention to all the data, not just some, the conflict could be resolved and MAA could focus on their mission.  It is is a non-profit enterprise, after all.  It does have a mission.

2.  The climate is changing.  And our mountain has always been 1000 feet too short for a truly successful and expansive for-profit ski resort. It seems that all it takes for any ski resort to fail  is two or three bad snow years.  The plan presented by MAA seems too general and too rosy, and places too much confidence in paid ‘scientists’ who often have their own agenda and as a result, they get it wrong.

I’m a fan of science.  But the history of science is one of learning from mistakes.  And blind trust in scientists requires a high level of tolerance for mistakes.  When it comes to our watershed, that could turn out to be a grave mistake.

Just two days ago, I heard four scientists speaking at the library who claim to have new information, and who all agree that there is big danger here.  I think someone should vet this information and see if it’s new.  Because if it is, then there are faulty assumptions in the EIS, and the science it is based on is really out of date.  And data does go out of date because things change. Every ten years, for example, the meaning of normal weather as referenced by weather forecasters, is updated.  So this decade’s normal is higher than last.  I left that meeting thinking, “ What if disturbing these specific 70 acres involved in the expansion could lead to a disaster 10 times greater than the 1997 flood?  It could destroy this town that I love!”

I think it’s a pity that these scientists came forward so late in the process.  But data is data, and I think it just seems reasonable that it be vetted to determine it’s validity and accuracy, before a single tree is logged or rock moved in the watershed.

And again, that’s where MAA comes in.  Some specific reassurance that this will be the case  would go a long way towards addressing this concern.  Without that, the city has cause to be concerned.

3.  The economic model of this development doesn’t add up.  It appears that a failure of the ski area after MAA alters the watershed will leave Ashland with a big chunk of the bill.

As far as I can tell,  claim that we’re more liable if we have the SUP than if we don’t simply ignores reality. We’re no more or less liable with or without the SUP.  But if something goes wrong, ASHLAND that will take the hit, and if it’s a rain event like 97, it could be truly catastrophic for this town.  Nothing lasts forever.  While the economic benefits of the development are often touted, negative economic consequences may be unavoidable if the watershed is damaged and the ski area fails.

MAA has not offered any evidence that our economic concerns about failure after the fact are adequately addressed in their plans, and it appears that mitigation is insufficiently financed against the worst case scenarios that are real possibilities.   If we’re all going to eventually get stuck with the bill should a failure or environmental catastrophe occur, it seems reasonable that MAA have enough money to deal with it, before any development starts.  That’s not too much to ask.  If MAA was responsive to this idea, that would help put this behind us.

Every successful business person knows that mistakes are inevitable, and a failure to plan is equivalent to planning to fail.

4.  There’s a credibility concern. An idea promoted by believers in the development is that if the mountain has more beginner runs, it will automatically have more people using it.  That may be true.  But from what I now understand, people go to Shasta and Sisters to ski not because of the defects in the skiing experience here, but because of advantages of the skiing there!   Better snow, for one.  Higher elevation.  Better run resorts, in better shape, with more amenities.  Where’s the market research that their assumptions about more business are based on anything other than their opinion and desire for it to be true?

How’s it going to all work?  Where’s the plan?  In 2006, the city Council rightly asked for specifics. Not getting specifics, the city went to the USFS and asked that all conversation take place through the city.  That request seems to have triggered the MAA lawsuit against the city, a lawsuit that the city lost.

Why did MAA sue instead of share?  Why not just provide the answers and offer the assurances that would allow the community to rest easy?   Perhaps because they didn’t have a plan, were lacking the specifics, and were amateurs playing professional games, and thus found it necessary to stonewall any efforts to get information.   Who is going to trust amateurs with such huge sums of money?  This lack of credibility due to a lack of specifics raises a giant red flag that gives many people pause. I wish I could think of any other explanation for the behavior of MAA throughout this drawn out saga.

5.  Bad blood is in the water, but in this one case,  I think this should have no bearing on your decision. People have been trash talking each other over this issue for a very long time.   All that serves to do is feed the fear and polarization, and fearful citizens tend to assume the worst and find it.  It is simple human nature to be against what people we despise are for, and to be for what people we despise are against.  Councilors have to be smarter than that, better than that, and keep to the issue rather than getting caught up in the personalities who have opinions about the issue.  We need our Council to do your best thinking on our behalf, not mirror our lowest instincts.

I’m grateful for the moderating tone of Councilors who have participated in the discussion on the listserve.   But the bad blood created through this divisive issue persists, and the listserve is only the visible part of it.  A change in the status quo can only aggravate this situation and further polarize our town.  And it’s not needed.  It changes nothing for the city.  What is needed is dialog with MAA, information and respect.

In the light of all these concerns, we the people are left to speculate on why the MAA wants the SUP so badly.  And it’s not too big of a leap to realize that having it stops the discussion in City Council chambers.  And so far, discussion rallies the opposition.

How does it serve the city to keep the SUP?  It serves to delay.   It maintains the status quo, allowing court cases to complete before logging can occur.

How does it serve the city to transfer the SUP?  It frees the city to take legal action if it believes that the watershed is endangered.

But lets face facts.  The city is highly unlikely to ever take such action, since legal action is costly, tax payers have to pay the costs (whether they agree with the suit or not), and in today’s political climate, nobody wants to give any government any money for any reason anyway.  Councilors sure don’t want to spend it.

So what should the city do?  Well, from what I can tell, the city is under no obligation to transfer the SUP or to hold it, because it really doesn’t make a difference regarding the MAA’s ability to pursue their expansion plans.  The city also has no authority or ability to impede the expansion, short of taking MAA to court. But having it, because it is desired by MAA, keeps the City in the conversation.  I think the city should hold on to the SUP for a while longer and work to get new data regarding the potential for catastrophic geological failures in the watershed  reviewed and studied by the USFS,  the City, and MAA, before any changes to the watershed get under way.  I am for continuing to hold the SUP, but only for a specified time.  Then I think the city has to make a decision, perhaps by a community wide vote, whether to  oppose the expansion or leave it be.  Dragging this out chews up too much valuable time for our Councilors and, at least in my case sorting through this mess, the time of the citizens as well. Besides, if the city thinks it’s a mistake in the making, we should quit beating around the bush, come right out, get on the record, and say so.

Councilors, I know that some of you were elected by supporters of the expansion, and some by opponents.  I’m for the ski resort and I’m glad we have it.  I do not want it to fail. I’m for the watershed, and its protection. These are not mutually exclusive interests, unless intransigence overrides intelligence.  It is your duty to consider all the evidence and take the whole of the community into account in whatever decision you make.   I appreciate the spot you’re in and the difficulty you’re faced with in making this decision.  No matter what you choose, someone is going to be upset with you.

Councilors, please keep the SUP a little while longer, and define a process with an end date that leads the city to a decision on whether our watershed is endangered by this development.

A few side notes: 

There are those who will insist that holding the SUP is tantamount to holding the ski resort hostage, or violating some handshake agreement, or damaging our city’s reputation for fairness in the minds of people surrounding our town.  As far as I can tell, this is hyperbole.  As it is written, the city has no obligation to transfer the SUP.

As someone who donated money to ‘Save Mt. Ashland,’ it never occurred to me that MAA would sue the city because it wanted details and assurances.  It also never occurred to me that they would want to invade and develop our watershed.  And it never occurred to me that they would become so seemingly immune to the concerns of the people who gave them money.  I’m half tempted to join as a member, and build a voice for reason and rational decision making from the inside. Indeed, if all the opponents of the current MAA board were to join the organization, they could change its leadership and direction.  Now that I’m writing this, I’m surprised that someone hasn’t already thought of that.

Mt. Ashland Association could change the dynamics around this if they were of a mind to do so. They could wind up with a town that is thrilled with its ski resort.

But in lieu of a miracle,  those who are most concerned can take this issue up with the right people:  MAA board members, for example.  Tell them how you feel, ask your own questions. Likewise, do the same with the USFS, EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers.

Because the fact is,  our city is somewhat powerless, and the SUP does not change that.

Note to the MAA board members:  

I hesitated to go public with this.  I’ve even had hopes of one day being invited in to help improve the relationship between MAA and the city.  I still would like to contribute in this way.   But for the last few days, I’ve done my best to read, listen and make sense of this whole development issue in order to understand the SUP issue.  I know people on every side of this that I respect.

And here’s what I want from you now. I really want you to demonstrate some flexibility and wisdom.  New evidence points to a greater danger to the watershed than has been previously considered.  It’s a watershed.  It’s an ecosystem.  Your decisions can have impact on our town.  We pitched in money to make you possible.  Please, as a favor to me, show some caution, clarity and patience.  Take this data into account and vet it for accuracy.  Talk to us as if you want to be good neighbors and don’t want to harm our watershed.

It’s really not too much to ask.

Sincerely,

Rick Kirschner

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