Great community leadership is born from an artistry in combining disparate talents and crafting them with vision, wisdom, dedication, and hard work. In this three-part interview series, former Ashland mayor John Stromberg talks about the quality of leadership that is required to make a city great. John talks about his philosophy and his experiences in city government following his twelve years leading the City Council, helping make Ashland such a quality place to live.
John and his wife Jane Stromberg have lived in Oregon for 35 years, and John served three terms as Ashland’s Mayor, 2008-2020, plus four years on the Planning Commission, and two years as Commission Chair. Prior to moving to Ashland from Eugene in 2000, he worked in the private sector for twenty years as an organization and management consultant. His major emphases were on enabling groups to work together more effectively, facilitating organizational change, and training workers to do highly complex jobs. He has a Ph.D. in Business Administration and a Masters in Statistics from UC Berkeley, and a Bachelor’s degree in Physics from Caltech. He was recruited by the Economics Dept. of the RAND Corporation, where he did his dissertation on the “Internal Mechanisms of the Defense Budget Process.”
Thank you for your time here, John- You’ve done a lot of work with wildfire control policy and forest undergrowth management. Please explain.
When I was first elected Mayor, in Nov 2008, I immediately began informing myself about the Ashland Forest Resiliency Project (AFR). The purpose of AFR was to make the forest in our watershed resistant to wildfire by removing excess ‘fuel’ and by thinning existing trees to restore it to the condition before European settlers arrived and began putting out all fires in the forest. The previous condition being an open forest with large Ponderosa Pines, from around which the undergrowth was removed every 7-8 years on average by naturally-occurring, low-level fires. AFR proposed to remove excess fuel by mechanical (hand) thinning, and then maintain low fuel levels through periodic controlled burning of the understory.
There had been years of controversy about AFR, which had eventually been resolved through the creation of a ‘community plan’ for how it was to be conducted. There had been significant citizen input, summarized in a draft Record of Decision (ROD) that specified how the work would be done and what it would cost. Only three key issues remained to be decided: (1) two lawsuits in different federal courts had been decided by different judges, in ‘opposite’ ways; (2) since the project plan was now a community creation it wasn’t clear who was actually going to implement the plan; (3) nobody knew how to come up with the $10.5 million budget.
Sometime in the following spring the lawsuit conflicts were mysteriously resolved; the Forest Supervisor (USFS) decided to create a four-way stewardship agreement with the Forest Service, the City of Ashland, the Nature Conservancy, and Lomakatsi Restoration Project (a local non-profit that was in the business of environmentally sensitive forestry). And $6 million of the funding was provided, with significant assistance from Senators Wyden and Merkley, through the federal government under ARRA (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009).
The concept of a community plan proved to be visionary and was faithfully implemented. The FS decided which parts of the Watershed were to be ‘treated’ and how; Lomakatsi’s teams carried out the environmentally sensitive fuel removal; The Nature Conservancy – by independent monitoring and on-site scientific research – made sure the environmental aspects of the plan were adhered to; and Ashland Fire & Rescue Deputy Chief for Wildfire, Chris Chambers, involved the community in continuous opportunities to track what was going on in the forest, learn how the plan worked, and view ongoing progress. This remarkable work became a platform that one day the five of us would use to help AFR become a national example of ‘restoration forestry’ for wildfire prevention – but it took a real crisis and great collaboration by all four members of the stewardship to pull the project through…
Sometime in 2013-14 I asked the Stewardship Team how much money was needed to complete the project (Stimulus funds were covering the first part of the $10,000.000 budget but where were the remaining $4,000,000 coming from?).
I’d been asking this question more than once for several months and was increasingly concerned by their answer: they didn’t know. I think we all assumed the City would take the lead for controlled burning because it was maintaining what I referred to as our ‘wildfire prevention infrastructure’ – but how did we get from here to completion of that infrastructure? They had asked our best source, a former senatorial staff forestry specialist who lived in Ashland and had a simple answer: it was time for Ashland to “put some skin in the game” and that meant cash, not ‘soft’ financial contribution such as funding for Chris’s participation in the Project.
We had discussed this “skin in the game” idea before and all thought it unlikely. The City Budget Committee was preparing for the upcoming fiscal year and no such line item existed. I had no idea where to turn and was, in fact, blocked by my own incredulity that the Forest Service would invest $6,000,000 in an important project and then walk away from it – but that was appearing more and more likely to be the reality we were facing, the key factor being initial stimulus funding, that wasn’t part of the Forest Service budget.
It was some time the following week or so that I woke up one morning with the inescapable realization that it was up to me as Mayor to come up with the funds. At that point I set aside my resistance and also my belief there was no way we could do it and personally, privately accepted the responsibility. Also I knew I had to give up my 40+ year commitment to running and working out in the gym and put that commitment into the task. This latter I didn’t tell anyone – but personally I was all in. The Mayor had a new responsibility (and also put on an extra 50 pounds in the ensuing months).
Once the decision was made, I realized what my first step would be. I would bring a proposal to the Budget Committee that they make a provision in the upcoming Budget for funding for maintenance of our wildfire prevention infrastructure, a cost those of us working on AFR knew was coming in a few years but one which I would ask the BC to ‘advance’ to the current year’s budget to give me something to work with by demonstrating our “skin in the game.” Soon thereafter at the next Budget Committee meeting I made my ‘ask’ – that we budget ‘in perpetuity’ $350,000 per biennium for direct costs of creating and maintaining our wildfire infrastructure. I explained why I wanted it and how it amounted to accelerating by 3 or 4 years the costs of controlled burning to the coming fiscal year. I remember finishing off with, “This is non-negotiable,” and I really meant it. I was indeed all in.
To my surprise, the Budget Committee voted unanimously to include the appropriation in their recommended Budget, and when the Budget came to the Council it passed unanimously and I knew then I would have to deliver.
The reaction was swift. The next day all four of the AFR Team members contacted me to tell me how excited they were about my action and the Budget Committee’s response. TNC’s Darren Borgias invited me to a TNC conference coming up soon in Sisters for all 16 of its ‘restoration
forestry’ projects, of which AFR was one. I immediately accepted. At the conference I realized the context for AFR was national and I had personalized the project with a major national environmental organization, plus met several key staff, which included the restoration forestry national manager for TNC, Chris Topik.
I especially liked being able to rapidly expand the circle of face-to-face relationships in support of our projects.
The next step was pure serendipity – I got an invitation from the Shakespeare Festival to attend the preview performance of On the Way in the Neil Simon Theater on Broadway and I could bring a guest. I realized Jane and I were attending (another non-negotiable) – and then had an important thought: we had a friend who lived in DC and had often invited us to visit and stay with her. While in Washington couldn’t Chris Chambers and I lobby for funding for AFR?
We called our friend and asked if we could come for a visit and lobby for AFR. She immediately said yes and we were on our way. I called Ashland Fire & Rescue Deputy Chief for Wildfire, Chris Chambers, and told him to make his reservations.
The next day I contacted The Nature Conservancy’s Darren Borgias to tell him Chris and I were going to Washington and asked if TNC would help with the lobbying. He got back to me right away: TNC would schedule appointments for Chris and myself including with the Chief of the Forest Service; provide us with a handler who would guide us around the Capitol; plus, Chris Topik, Manager of TNC’s restoration forestry projects, would join us when we met with the FS Chief, whom he knew well.
A few weeks later, when Chris and I found ourselves with our handler on our way to a photo op with Senator Wyden, an in-person meeting with Portland Congresswoman Representative Bonamici, and another with Representative De Fazio’s environmental staffer, I realized the great value of our Nature Conservancy partnership. Later in the day we were set to meet a key Forest Service manager who worked on the statistics of wildfires and wildfire fighting and then go on to what would be a memorable encounter. This meeting was scheduled for the Chief of the Forest Service but on the way we learned the Chief couldn’t attend. However, the Undersecretary of Agriculture – the Chief’s boss – would meet with us instead.
The Undersecretary was gracious, intelligent, well-informed and interested in our project.
Chris and I laid out in some detail how the project was going and answered the Undersecretary’s questions but didn’t mention our funding problem. Then it seemed natural to ask if he had seen a recent video we had commissioned by a gifted local videographer. He didn’t, so I gave a brief description and suddenly I found myself saying, “…and in the middle of this video there’s a Ken Burns effect shot of a male Pacific Fisher. He’s almost six feet long, that smokey beige mink color, lying in the snow and [pause – leaning forward] there are snowflakes in his whiskers!” And then the following words appeared in my mind, “And do you know what that Fisher is saying?” For a brief moment I paused, remembered we were all in, and plunged ahead. “Do you know what that Fisher is saying,” I asked. The Undersecretary leaned forward, “What?!!” “He’s saying, “I want my four million dollars!” There was a sudden pause and then everyone in the room broke out laughing.
The Undersecretary picked up the conversation, “How can I see this amazing video?” We gave him the URL, thanked him for spending so much time with us, and departed. In about two hours I got an email…he loved the video and wanted permission to show it throughout the Forest Service nationwide. Permission granted, with pleasure. That completed our lobbying in DC.
In the weeks and months that followed AFR was visited by a number of FS staff: first the Forest Supervisor of an adjacent National Forest. Later the Regional Forester for Region 6 came (Region 6 contains the Rogue-Siskiyou National Forest, to which the Ashland Watershed belongs.) The Oregon State Conservationist visited (this position is in a different part of the Agriculture Department that manages farm subsidies but also funds fuels reduction work on private forest lands that are potential pathways for fire to lands such as the Ashland watershed).
In addition, I met the Executive Director of the Forest Service Foundation, a non-profit that helps fund projects that don’t get adequate funding from the normal FS budget, who happened to pass through town on Cycle Oregon (ultimately the Foundation contributed $175,000). And the State of Oregon Board of Forestry decided to hold its annual meeting in Ashland during this period as well. They all came on an AFR tour too. The visits culminated in a visit from the WFLC (Wildland Fire Leadership Council), the body charged with setting wildfire policy nationally, which decided to have its annual meeting with a two-day session in Ashland, with Day #1 devoted to visiting and discussing AFR and Day #2 for a working session of the Council (we were told to prepare for 70 people plus federal security!).
Members of the AFR Stewardship Team made presentations on Day #1 as well as the Executive Director of the Ashland Chamber of Commerce, which had strongly supported AFR, a social science professor from Southern Oregon University, who had done important sociometric studies of community attitudes about AFR and its effects. Chris and Fire Chief Karns reported on communicating with the community both in the field and via the media and also plans for wildfire prevention within the city itself. The focus of interest for the WFLC was Ashland as a prime example of a Fire Adapted Community.
After the WFLC conference was over, a senior national Forest Service manager emailed me, “You have changed the face of wildfire prevention in the West.”
We subsequently received a visit from the Oregon Water Enhancement Board, which distributes lottery funds to projects concerned with protecting water quality throughout the State. OWEB has since made multiple contributions to AFR.
Sometime in 2014-15 other money had started flowing to AFR. At first $350,000 mysteriously appeared in its budget, we didn’t know from whom. Then AFR was included in a Joint Chiefs Grant (for complimentary thinning work on private lands that could become pathways bringing fire into the Watershed) and Erin Kurtz joined the Leadership Team. Her job was to recruit private landowners in the 57,000 acres surrounding the watershed, along pathways for fire, to have Lomakatsi perform thinning on their lands. Erin was a perfect fit right away.
In addition, a significant number of trees were removed via helicopter logging, with several million board feet of marketable lumber taken out through the streets of Ashland – with positive public reaction, because it was seen as contributing to the prevention of wildfire in the Watershed. The revenue from the logs at the mills had, by law, to be spent only for direct costs of AFR but defrayed a significant portion of the costs of the helicopter logging operation (every log removed in this process was measured in diameter, sorted by species for separate mills and summarized on graphs for public consumption).
Another apparent outcome of our lobbying trip – and perhaps the visits – was that Chris and I, both separately and jointly, were invited to many conferences and workshops. The most “high level” was a Whitehouse Roundtable on Wildfire in which I was an invited panelist (pre-Zoom, actually in the Executive Office Building). Also, one of both of us were invited to panels at the Western Governors Conference, Oregon State University, the University of Oregon, and City Club of Portland; a Conference in Boulder organized by a consulting firm that promoted the use of land use regulations for wildfire prevention; and events in Flagstaff which Chris attended. And, in 2020, Chris was named to the Governor’s (of Oregon) Wildfire Council, which would in 2021 develop a strategy for the State that included progressive ideas that go beyond but complement the restoration forestry approach.
Plus, for years TNC has sponsored a two-week TRXX training program in Ashland for controlled burning that has drawn both nationwide and international participants.
When the Region 6 Regional Forester came for a visit, we met in Pioneer Hall before and after the tour and while we were debriefing, I realized the Regional Forester reported directly to the Chief of the FS. As various members of the group were debriefing, a woman behind me began speaking in such an intelligent and informed way I was struck…and made a point to get to know her. She had been the State Forester in Washington State and was obviously a key player at the top of the FS (in fact she went on to become Chief of the FS during the Trump presidency and just retired last year).
At some point a very senior manager with his staff came out from Washington DC and Chris and I realized it was the person whom we had heard of only as “he who has the money.” So Jane and I had a catered meal at our home for the whole group and made a nice mutual connection. Afterwards I walked to his car with him and he said simply, “We’ll take care of you.” He went on to become FS Chief and then Undersecretary during the time of Trump. We had lunch together about 18 months ago when he was out on the West Coast and passing through Ashland. The latest I saw online was that President Biden has appointed the same Agriculture Secretary, Undersecretary, with this individual as Chief, as had existed during the Obama administration – so we should have some entree for participating in new initiatives addressing wildfire safety.
As for the money, after a couple of months some $350,000 appeared mysteriously in the AFR budget (“he who has the money”). Larger amounts came from many sources. Plus, we were invited to apply for other funding. Chris estimated at one point that we had received between $10 and $20 million (the project had expanded to being part of a joint project with another part of the Department of Agriculture, that provided funding for treating paths of fire in the private lands surrounding our watershed).
What really made our efforts successful was the ability of our community and especially the AFR team, Chamber, university, newspaper, city government, etc. to truly work together for a project of great importance to all. In Forest Service parlance, Ashland was and is a “Fire Adapted Community.”
Lastly, early on as AFR was starting up, I casually said to the team that AFR should have an educational component. Marko Bey of Lomakatsi took up the idea and invented a month-long paid summer internship program for 20 high school seniors from the Rogue Valley and local tribal areas to work as a Lomakatsi crew thinning the forest.
The work is hard, hot, with yellow jackets and poison oak, and the interns must learn how to work together for safety as well as getting the work done. At the end of every day an hour is devoted to a lecture in the field by a subject matter expert, for example in entomology, hydrology, tree and plant species, First Nation forest practices, etc.
The experience is transformative: what starts as a random group of young men and young women ends up a month later as a closely bonded team that is confident in its skills and committed to the environment and its protection.
When all is said and done, I believe this is the most important “product” of the Ashland Forest Resiliency Project.
READ PARTS 1 & 2 ONLINE: ashland.oregon.localsguide.com
Jordan Pease is a 20-year resident of Ashland and Founder/Director of Rogue Valley Metaphysical Library and Media Exchange. www.RVML.org