An Arizonan Does See the Forest for the Trees, A Conversation
State Representative Bob Thorpe has served in the Arizona House since 2013 including being Chairman of four committees, where he currently chairs the Technology Committee. And, he happens to have expertise in forest management due to his years as a volunteer firefighter.
With an undergraduate degree and several years of graduate studies, Thorpe has over 40-years of business experience including Walt Disney as an “Imagineer,” Price Waterhouse accounting firm, and the aerospace industry where he built aircraft training devices for the U.S. Military including the F/A-18, F-16 and the Apache Helicopter. Thorpe both worked and volunteered for over 6 years in K-12 education and 8 years as a high technology instructor at UCLA Extension. Thorpe founded a software business with Fortune 500, international and government clients and has worked at several firms in the field of Information Technology, software, and website development.
State Representative Bob Thorpe during Arizona Farm Bureau's 2019 AgFest.
In his late 40's, Thorpe served his community for almost 8 years as a certified Arizona volunteer firefighter / EMT and has volunteered as a K-12 robotics competition judge and coach. Thorpe is a student of the U.S. Constitution and authored a book on Amazon on the topic. Thorpe volunteers at his church and on cattle round-ups on the Navajo Nation and is active in conservative political organizations.
Having climbed numerous mountains including the 14,500' high Mt. Whitney (twice) and the 17,800' high Popocatépetl, Thorpe is an avid sportsman enjoying outdoor activities including fly-fishing, shooting sporting clays, snow skiing, and amateur astronomy.
He’s received numerous awards and recognitions including the Optometrist Legislator of the Year, Legislator Champion of the Arts (twice), AZCDL Lifetime Achievement Award and ACCCC's Arizona Community Colleges Legislator of the Year.
Born and raised in Southern California, Thorpe lives near Flagstaff with his wife and has two grown children, two Labradors retrievers, and two desert tortoises. Thorpe and his wife designed, built and live in their award-winning energy-efficient home.
And, he slowed down enough to answer my questions regarding one of his keen interests, forest health. We’d visited at the Capitol after a press conference on behalf of Arizona’s farmers and ranchers. Representative Thorpe lent his support for the water conservation effort advanced by Arizona agriculture. When we spoke, Representative Thorpe was keen to highlight that if we managed our forests correctly, we’d have more water left in our reservoirs.
Arizona Agriculture : Besides the obvious, why are you so passionate about forest health?
Rep. Thorpe : I gained a great deal of knowledge about forest health as a trained and certified Northern Arizona volunteer firefighter for over eight years, with a Red Card for fighting wildfires. My wife and I also own 10 acres of forested property near Flagstaff that we reduced from 8,000 to 5,000 trees with the help of an Arizona State Land Department's Forest Stewardship program. I am a big fan of NAU Forestry Professor Wally Covington whose research indicates that the largest Ponderosa Pine forests, which are in Northern Arizona, historically had about 50 trees per acre. However, my property and plenty of our forests currently have between 500 to 1,000 trees per acre. The problems associated with overgrown, dense forests include:
- An increase in catastrophic wildfires that destroy public resources, produces pollution and clogs waterways and lakes with ash and silt
- Unhealthy trees that must compete for scarce water and sunlight resources, and
- Bark beetles that attack and can kill stressed, century-old trees within weeks because they cannot produce the needed sap to push the beetle larvae out
Arizona Agriculture : Give an overview of what we’re facing here in Arizona with our forests and why our fires tend to be so devastating.
Rep. Thorpe : When a forest is at historic densities of, for example, 50 trees per acre, a wildfire caused by lightning or by humans is typically a low-intensity fire, which can have about 18-inch tall flame lengths. A low-intensity fire will burn grasses that recover quickly, and it cleans the understory [also known as undergrowth] of the forest of dead fuels and unwanted plants and saplings. Low-intensity fires are an important part of a healthy forest, for example, because they release nitrogen into the soil that greens up the forest and they provide a better hunting environment for birds like Spotted Owls that hunt by sight and do much better in a clean forest.
Fires in overgrown forests, like the 2011 Wallow Fire that destroyed over one half a billion acres of forest, tend to be catastrophic because the fire travels up into the top of the trees as a crown fire, and jumps from tree to tree, destroying everything in its path. Unlike low-intensity fires where firefighters can literally walk right into the fire zone to fight and manage them, catastrophic wildfires can have 24-foot-tall flame lengths with intense heat that make them very difficult to fight directly on the ground, and the immense heat destroys the forest and sterilizes the ground which can delay recovery and regrowth of the forest by decades.
Arizona Agriculture : Explain what you’re trying to do with the trees on your own property?
Rep. Thorpe : Each year, I try to reduce the number of my 5,000 trees by about 50, taking small- to medium-sized trees that range between 8 to 14 inches in diameter, and heating my house with the firewood. Proper forest management includes leaving some smaller diameter trees that will eventually replace the larger trees that will eventually die, to create space between the trees to reduce competition for sunlight and water, and to reduce the risk of crown fires. It's also important to leave some trees clumped closer together to keep the property looking natural and less like a tree farm, and the clumping also provides locations for deer and elk to gather and hide. Tall dead trees that are not in immediate danger of falling can be left standing to provide a location for nesting eagles and raptors. It's even good to leave some dead trees on the ground to provide rotting wood for insects and small mammals to eat, and then the insects then become food for the birds and mammals, and the mammals become food for larger predators and raptors… and so goes the cycle of life.
Arizona Agriculture : You discussed the devasting Wallow Fire and made comparisons to a coal-fired plant. Explain?
Rep. Thorpe : President Obama declared war on coal, on coal-fired power generation and on the U.S. coal mining industry. During his administration, Obama and his EPA enacted the Clean Power Plan and Visibility and Regional Haze rulings that made it more difficult for Arizona coal power generation. Recently, I conducted research on the pollution that our Arizona coal-fired power plants were producing compared to the multimillion-dollar Federal Wallow fire, and what I found was staggering. The single Wallow fire produced more pollution than all our power plants produce annually. All the pollution indexes were about double or higher for the Wallow fire, and in particular, VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) was over 2,000 times higher for the Wallow fire than for our coal-fired power plants.
So why is it important to link Arizona power production and forest fires? Unlike the eastern states, the Federal government controls about 65 percent of Arizona’s land, including our national forests that are overgrown and prone to devastating wildfire. If the Federal government is concerned with reducing pollution, it should pay more attention to its own flawed forest management practices, and less on the state's power producing industries.
The EPA has routinely harmed our power producers with over-regulation, rule-making and non-compliance fines. However, they do not fine or treat the Federal forest managers in the same way when multimillion-dollar wildfires occur that destroy public and private resources and produce unimaginable amounts of pollution that directly impacts our citizens and our wildlife. If the Federal government is not going to properly manage our public lands and forests, and reduce catastrophic wildfires, then the lands need to be given to Arizona to manage, as had already occurred in many of the eastern states a century ago.
Arizona Agriculture : You suggested that forest health benefits Yuma County and Pinal County; other Arizona areas in general, explain?
Rep. Thorpe : You may be surprised to learn that the water needed for growing Romaine Lettuce in Yuma may be impacted by our Northern Arizona forests. Arizona is an arid state with an average of about 8 inches of annual rainfall. Our Central Arizona Project (CAP) was built in the early 1900s to create reservoirs and canals to provide needed water to central and southern Arizona cities and agriculture. Watershed is negatively impacted by overgrown, unhealthy, and burnt forests. A typical mature Ponderosa pine tree drinks about 300 gallons per day when the ground is wet. So, for example, 10 acres of pines at 500 trees per acre drinks about 1.5 million gallons per day when the ground is wet. This water literally disappears right into the air through transpiration, instead of replenishing groundwater or flowing downhill in creeks and streams for use by our cities and agriculture.
Arizona Agriculture : So, what's at stake here is more than just healthy forests and forest fires, we're talking water resources. If we did this right, what would it look like?
Rep. Thorpe : As an arid state, we must find ways to increase our watershed and always wisely use our water resources. Thinning our forests back to historic densities will increase our watershed. By treating our forests as crops, we can regularly harvest trees for wood products including wood pellets and log heating fuels, biomass electricity production, and even diesel and aircraft fuel production. Managed, healthy forests will save countless millions of taxpayer dollars because they are less prone to multimillion-dollar catastrophic wildfires, and the related pollution, and loss of natural, public and private resources. Additionally, healthy public forests provide recreational opportunities and increased tourism revenue.
Arizona Agriculture : How do agriculture, forestry, and the legislature come together to get this right knowing that some of this is out of our hands when it comes to federal lands?
Rep. Thorpe : With only 17 percent of Arizona lands in private ownership generating important taxes for education and local government, and with the unequal, unfair treatment that western states have been subjected to as compared to the eastern states, it is up to the citizens of Arizona, and our State and Federal elected officials to fight for complete Arizona sovereignty and parity with eastern states. If the Federal government wants to occupy over 65 percent of Arizona lands, then it needs to compensate Arizona citizens, dollar for dollar, for the loss of property taxes and other economic hardships that we are subject to in comparison to the eastern states. With such a small percentage of Arizona lands in private ownership, and such a huge proportion under Federal control, the question needs to be asked: is Arizona truly a State, or are we still merely a territory?
Editor’s note : One of Rep Thorpe’s favorite quotes from the Federalist, "We may safely rely on the disposition of the State Legislatures to erect barriers against the encroachments of the national authority." Alexander Hamilton, Federalist #85. Additionally, as we move into fire season, remember to stay engaged with state and federal agencies if a fire breaks out on rangelands you manage. For state and private lessees, contact the Arizona Interagency Dispatch Center at 800.309.7081 to report a fire.
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