Career highs and lows

Anyone concerned, confused or even fatigued by the controversial, decades-long Mt. Ashland Ski Area expansion plan usually ends up talking to forest ranger Steve Johnson.

Johnson has been the U.S. Forest Service's point man since 1991, when the decision was made to convert acres of undeveloped public land on Mount Ashland into additional ski trails, chairlifts and parking spaces and environmentalists stepped in to stop it.

The Forest Service is trying to lift an injunction that prevents grading and construction work in the western portion of the resort's special use permit area. If a federal court gives the go-ahead, the Mt. Ashland Association, which manages the 48-year-old ski area, hopes to raise up to $3.5 million through donations and grants and build the first phase of the plan, which includes 71 acres of new, largely novice and intermediate ski runs.

"I expect the injunction to be lifted any day," Johnson says on Thursday. "But then I have been expecting that for a couple of months now."

The expansion plan has hung in litigation limbo longer than any other project on Forest Service land of which Johnson is aware.

"This is certainly not the norm," says Johnson, who started his job as the recreation specialist with the Siskiyou Mountains Ranger District on the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest when the plan was approved 21 years ago and may retire before it reaches a conclusion.

Although Johnson has other duties — he oversees 230 miles of forest trails and administers special-use permits for recreational events such as the Mount Ashland Hill Climb bike and run races — more than anything else, he is known as the ranger referee standing in the middle of the tug-of-war between environmentalists and developers over the ski area expansion.

Over the last two decades, through myriad revisions and fiery debates, the plan has come to dominate Johnson's workweek. He has attended court sessions, City Council meetings and public discussions, trying to direct people to documents to answer questions and counter rumors.

In his Ashland office near Interstate 5, Johnson keeps a library of the 40,000 pages of documents related to the project. He estimates he has read 12,000 letters from adversaries and advocates. From all of this, he writes occasional summaries of "the saga," as he calls it, to keep higher-ups informed.

To explain the stalled plan yet again, he holds his right hand vertically to represent the current ski area. With the expansion, he says, dipping his hand down, the terrain would be more level. "It's hard for most people to enjoy skiing when they're on top of the mountain and they can't see beyond the tips of their skis," he says.

Critics of the plan worry about damaging wildlife, old-growth forest and the city of Ashland's water supply as well as losing control of a community-owned ski area perhaps to a corporation. The ski area's management and board of directors as well as some City Council members and business owners hope the additions will draw thousands more skiers a year, adding jobs and increasing revenue.

Less vocal groups have other ideas. Johnson has probably heard them all.

In his position, he has remained publicly neutral about the plan. Still, the keeper of the documents and the face of the Forest Service for the Ashland and Applegate ranger stations has fans and foes.

"Unfortunately, he lacks the authority and will to make changes internally and aggressively find an alternative that limits impacts to our water supply and meets skier demands," writes Eric Navickas, one of the most vocal opponents of the plan and a former Ashland city councilor, in an email response to a request to comment for this story.

Navickas begins his email by saying that he met Johnson at a Forest Service public meeting on the ski area expansion 14 years ago. Navickas continues: "I always found Steve to be very approachable, open to discussion and even a friend."

When Johnson is off the clock, he says he can navigate Ashland, his hometown since the 1970s, mostly anonymously. Those who do buttonhole him about the contentious issue offer a range of opinions, from apathy to adamant support or opposition.

Some people who are opposed to the expansion will "still sit down and have a beer with me. Others won't look me in the face," he says. "And there are a lot of other people who are just tired of it."

He adds: "I think the Mt. Ashland expansion project has been such a polarizing issue partly because of the misinformation that has been disseminated and the statements that have been made from both sides."

Johnson says he makes that last statement "as an individual" and not someone representing the Forest Service, where the official line is that the agency received a proposal, conducted analysis and made the decision that the land is suitable for ski area development, which would be a valuable asset to the community.

He says he has been personally attacked in a few of the letters he has received, "but they are the exceptions. Most of the people opposed to it have been civil to me."

One of Johnson's former supervisors, Linda Duffy, says his approach has helped keep information flowing and the dialogue evolving during the decades.

"You will get positive comments about Steve from people who view the expansion from across the spectrum because he may politely disagree with someone but he doesn't criticize them," says Duffy, the former Siskiyou Mountains District ranger who worked with Johnson for 10 years. "Steve is fair, he's intelligent, he enjoys the outdoors, he understands his role as being entrusted to take care of nature, and he offers opinions based on research and study, not a personal bias."

Duffy retired in 2011 after 33 years with the Forest Service. "Steve and I used to wonder if either of us would still be here to steward the expansion development," she says. "Maybe neither of us will."

As the 62-year-old approaches retirement, Johnson thinks back to the reason he left grad school in the 1970s, when he was inching toward a degree in American literature and writing poems, to work outdoors.

"From my window at the University of Nevada I could see Mount Rose and the ski area and I asked myself, 'What am I doing here?'" he says in his ranger office, a baseball cap on his head, hiking boots on his feet. "I need to be outside."

He worked part-time throughout the late 1970s and '80s on trail and fire crews with occasional work as a lookout near Fish Lake. In 1988, he took a full-time job with the Forest Service, managing trailheads and campground concessions.

In 1991, he became the snow ranger and the district's heritage resource specialist, continuing to support the fire organization and conduct snow surveys.

For the first six years, there were not a lot of ski area improvements, other than re-contouring existing runs. But ownership of the ski area changed hands, from a private company, Harbor Properties of Seattle, to the city in 1992, and the Mt. Ashland Association signed a lease to manage the area until 2017.

In 1997, when resort management sought to begin site work on the first phase of the expansion plan, Johnson began to build what is now a mountain of research and reports.

Mt. Ashland Ski Area Manager Kim Clark says the nonprofit ski area has paid $1.35 million for environmental reports, consultants and "recovery agreement" payments to the Forest Service.

"At that time, I had no idea what I was getting into," Johnson says now. "The expansion hasn't been the only thing I have been doing, but it has been the main thing off and on."

He says he doesn't want "to paint the job as 20 years of misery." He gets to strap on skis and in the past, he rode a snowmobile on the job. "There has been a lot of great outdoor time," he says.

What he has found "disconcerting and frustrating" about the expansion issue has been "the hue of the discussion," he says. "I'm the type of person who doesn't like conflict but I have been in the center of it for a long, long time and it has been hard."

He says that over the years he has thought about changing jobs, but the idea never stuck. There aren't that many ski resorts and he says he likes living and working in Ashland.

"I feel an obligation to the community at large and the agency," he says. "It has been great to work for the Forest Service. We have not done everything right, but we do our best."

Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or email

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