On the trail of Smokey Bear

Smokey with scoutsYou see him on signs in our national forests and natural areas. He’s a cartoonish bare-chested bear with a wide-brimmed ranger hat and overalls, usually holding a spade. He’s Smokey Bear, one of the USA’s most widely recognized icons. Smokey is often seen in the company of forest creatures and small children.  He’s the bear who says that only you can prevent forest fires and more recently, wildfires in general.

 His friendly or sometimes stern patriarchal visage is designed to inculcate certain attitudes in children. Adults don’t need talking animals to instruct them about fire safety in the woods. But what was Smokey teaching us during those early years. Who wrote his lines? And why didn’t he explain how fire is essential to healthy forest and grassland eco-systems? 

Smokey began life as a war baby. Literally. During World War II the government worried that forest fires could burn up a strategic resource needed for the war effort. The Japanese actually attempted sabotage of West Coast forests with fire bombs & fire balloons, but succeeded only in killing a teacher and some kids on an outing. In the summer of 1943, the year of a massive forest fire outside of LA, the Foote, Cone & Belding ad agency was tasked with a campaign to help reduce forest fires in the West. 

Only a year earlier the Disney film Bambi had been released with one of the most terrifying scenes in 20th century cinema, the forest fire scene that was to frighten small children for generations to come. It sure scared the crap out of me when I was little. Disney originally allowed Bambi characters to be used for the government fire prevention campaign, but only for a year, so Smokey replaced the famous deer in 1944. 

In the minds of school kids, the film Bambi and Smokey Bear get all mixed up into one vision of what a forest fire is about. In Bambi, the chilling words, “Man is in the forest.” foreshadows the death of his mother and the fire that is accidentally started by cold-blooded careless humans. If only Smokey had been there, things might have turned out differently. Smokey became more than a symbol of fire prevention. He became a guardian for the preservation of nature itself.

 But this was a confusing and misleading message to kids. The primary mission of the US Forest Service was not the preservation of nature, but the exploitation of forests by timber companies for lumber. Roads had to be bulldozed through wilderness areas and entire mountainsides stripped of trees through clear cutting, causing erosion which choked watersheds. Of this threat to nature, Smokey was silent.

Fire is actually an important part of forest ecology, but Big Timber was concerned about their “assets” in the woods and so pushed a policy of near total fire suppression. Without smaller naturally occurring fires, the forest understory becomes choked with dead trees, fallen branches and underbrush, creating the conditions for human-made forest holocausts that consume everything in their path. Author Herbert E. McLean calls these “forests of torches”

In the West the ponderosa pine forests require periodic fires to remain healthy. Lodgepole pine cones actually open to produce new trees when exposed to fire. In the eastern forests, the traditional  oak, chestnut, pine and birch forests have been reduced as a growing monoculture of red maple takes their place, largely because of fire suppression. Fire suppression has encouraged infestation by fungi and destructive insect pests and results in the near extirpation of some tree species where they once dominated. 

 No one argued that people should be careless with fire in wild lands. Nature and careful human prescribed burning were certainly enough to keep wilderness healthy. A lot of the Smokey Bear advice was good common sense. But lumping all wilderness fires together as  unmitigated evil was dishonest propaganda. The Forest Service and allied agencies had created a monster.

Of this eco-disaster, Smokey also remained silent. His original ad shop, Foote, Cone & Belding had advised the government that trying to explain the complexity of fire ecology and that some fires were “good” would not work in advertising.


 In addition fire suppression became a major cash cow for the Forest Service itself as it hired legions of young men and women, equipping them with C-130’s, helicopters, trucks, fire resistant suits and the everyday personal tools of wilderness fire fighters. All of this combined with the rapacity of Big Timber to create a perfect firestorm in our nation’s natural areas.

 Visiting Smokey Bear

Like a lot of kids of a certain age, I was enthralled by Smokey. I wanted to be a forest ranger. I learned how to build a one match campfire and how to extinguish it safely. I thought of myself as the guardian of the small woodlots and stream valleys I explored. But unlike most kids of my generation, I was born in Washington DC and got to visit the real living breathing Smokey Bear. It was a strangely disturbing experience.

The Forest Service realized that a cartoon bear was one thing, but an actual bear  would be much more appealing. While fighting a fire in New Mexico’s Lincoln National Forest in 1950, soldiers found a tiny terrified badly burned young black bear clinging to the top of a tree. His mother was nowhere to be found in the desolate landscape. The Forest Service had their bear. Originally dubbed “Hotfoot Teddy”, his name was soon changed to Smokey Bear. He was raised by humans and after he started to grow and become less cute, he was sent to the National Zoo in Washington DC.

He became one of the zoo’s most popular attractions. At the height of his popularity he received nearly 13,000 letters per week so that US Postal Service eventually gave him his own zip code.  His story was deeply compelling to his millions of zoo visitors. Like the fictional Bambi, he had lost his mom and survived a forest fire. No wonder kids loved him.

I remember Smokey in his outdoor cage, the last one in a row of cages set in a hill in Rock Creek Park where the zoo is still located.  I would hold on to the barrier that separated zoo visitors from the animal cages and wonder what he was thinking. Often he was asleep and I would imagine what bears dreamed of.Smokey at the Zoo

As I got older, I became more and more bothered by my visits. He often had a 1000 yard stare as he sat looking out of his cage. There really wasn’t much for him to do. It began to dawn on me that he wasn’t even really a bear at all except biologically. Bears belong in the wilderness, raised by their moms to find grubs, berries and to roam free, Smokey was a “bear” who didn’t know how to be a bear. When the zoo tried to get him to mate with another bear named Goldie, the attempt was a failure.

Don’t get me wrong, he would have died as a cub without that human rescue in the New Mexico wilderness. But a life sentence in what amounted to a federal pententiary so  he could symbolize an eco-catastrophe? That became unacceptable to me.

 The Lincoln National Forest: Home of Smokey Bear

Lincoln National Forest

 “First of all, his name is Smokey Bear, not Smokey THE  Bear, explained the Forest Service ranger in charge of our volunteer trail crew. The Lincoln National Forest staff takes Smokey very seriously. Their elite fire crew is named “The Smokey Bear Hotshots” and travels in a bus emblazoned with that name. They have a reputation to uphold and want to be known as the best crew in the Service. The Forest logo is a tiny bear cub up a burned tree set in the aftermath of a forest fire. The story of Smokey still attracts visitors and the Forest administrators are very aware of that.

I had come to the Lincoln National Forest in 1992 to do a 2 week stint of trail work, something I did summers when I was a South Side Chicago history teacher. I chose the Lincoln that summer because it was the home of my childhood hero Smokey. I felt I owed him homage even though I disapproved of how he had been misused.

Trail building is hard physical work. It is roadbuilding and repair, but of a special kind, narrow roads made for walkers, whether 2 legged humans or 4 legged human companions. Our crew was made up of about 14 American Hiking Society volunteers and 4-5 Forest Service professionals working in a designated wilderness area of the Lincoln. This means only hand tools: no power saws, jackhammers or explosives. The tools for the job include the typical wilderness tools like picks, axes, spades and saws. My favorite was the pulaski, a firefighters tool that is a combination axe and pick. It’s like a big Swiss Army knife, you can do almost anything with it.We packed in in our tents, sleeping bags and personal gear while our food and tools were carried by mules and horses. 

Trail work

The biggest enemy of a trail is water. Water washes away the trail or turns it into a muddy morass. Hikers go around the damaged areas to make unofficial trails which creates further erosion until it becomes an unsightly, even dangerous mess, a place to twist an ankle, break a leg or even fall off a steep precipice. So one of our jobs was to build up the trail from below using stones and wood and to divert water so it flows off the trail rather than collects there. If you walk a trail and see diagonal logs sunk into it or stone channels, these are the water bars designed to keep the trail intact

The crew was an interesting cross-section of Americana including an aspiring New York actor, a Vietnam veteran who had been part of a Phoenix Program assassination team, a fierce young army lieutenant addicted to body building magazines, the daughter of a classics professor who loved discussing Ancient Greek civilization with me, a retiree from Sun City AZ who loved bean burros plus conservative politics, an amiable local school teacher who worked as a summer ranger and a summer ranger from Roswell, NM who was proud of his town’s reputation for space aliens. There’s nothing like a colorful cast of characters to lighten the load of hard physical labor.

Trail Crew

 The best day I had in Smokey's old wilderness home was to accompany a small group of volunteers and two of the professionals down a trail that was marked on the map, but had not been visited by anyone in the Forest Service for years. Carrying our tools, we were to clear obstructions and report back if the trail was still passable and worth improving. 

This unnamed trail began at the 8000 ft cool pine forest where we were camped and meandered down to high desert. As we descended, the wonders of the different eco-systems we passed revealed themselves to us. We finally arrived at the ruins of an old ranch and had lunch under the blazing New Mexico sun. We removed some fallen logs and cut back some brush, but overall, the trail was in pretty good shape. Hiking back up was exhausting, but ascending into the coolness of the forest made up for that discomfort.

After work such as that, we would trudge back to camp for dinner, hot, dirty and tired, but looking forward to an evening surrounded by the fragrance of pine and the songs of birds and insects. There was a cliff overlooking the desert far below which we called The Ledge. We would sit there and watch the sun disappear and a starry night worthy of Van Gogh would slowly materialize above us. We were truly blessed to be in such a magical place. But magic can work both for good and for ill.

The Ledge

 Once while it was still twilight on The Ledge, one of the rangers pointed to a blotch on the desert and explained that it was the Trinity site, where the first atomic bomb was tested. It was there where some of the physicists placed bets as to whether the bomb would set the entire planet aflame, the ultimate wild fire. Project leader Robert Oppenheimer had recited to himself, ‘I am become death, destroyer of worlds,” a line from the Hindu Bhagavad Gita. Smokey never mentioned this threat to to forests either.

We were in a gorgeous mountain forest, birthplace of an American icon, but the realities of “civilization” were never far away. I sat there thinking of a now vanished wilderness world that had been swept away by the European conquest of North America. And it didn’t even take an atomic bomb to do it.

Smokey's Grave

In between assignments in two different parts of the Lincoln National Forest, we were driven to nearby Capitan, New Mexico where the remains of Smokey lie buried behind the Smokey Bear Historical Park. The grave site was a huge rock behind the museum with a a plaque set into it. It seemed creepy to me as I stood there in a few moments of respectful silence. In the wild, bears die and anonymously return to their habitat to give nutrients to new life. But Smokey was not allowed that gesture of wilderness dignity. Even in death, Smokey could not escape being turned into a symbol for the failure of human forest management.

 What is a wilderness anyway?

One Native American answered that question this way,”What your ancestors called a ‘wilderness’, my people called ‘home.’ “

Our back country trail projects contained their own contradictions.  The theory behind maintained  trails is that if visitors enjoy walking through natural areas, they will come to love them and defend them against the encroachments of mining, grazing and timber interests who covet their riches.

But that means visitors must arrive by planes, trains and buses, or must drive their cars, SUV’s and RV’s to get there, adding to global pollution. Towns devoted to tourism grow up around our most popular areas putting even more pressure on fragile environments. Although fire is important to maintaining healthy forest eco-systems, people living in mountain chalets and in nearby commercial centers quite naturally don’t want fires burning all around them. They don’t necessarily want other evidence of wilderness in their backyards either, like potentially dangerous cougars, bears, coyotes, moose or bison.

Some people simply drive through national parks and forests, only emerging from their cars to pee, buy some post cards or dine at a fast food eatery in a visitors center. They are content with scenery and display little interest in what lies off the road. The result are traffic jams in and around Yellowstone and  LA-style smog in Yosemite Valley. Haughty and hardy backpackers may disparage the “windshield wilderness” crowd, but the chances are pretty good that the backpackers parked a polluting motorized vehicle at the trailhead before hoisting on their backpacks, adjusting the straps and heading into the back country.

Backpackers and campers are at the end of a supply chain that is hardly eco-friendly. Modern wilderness travelers now demand the lightest and most sophisticated gear and gizmos.This means a camping equipment industry  heavily based on synthetics whose production involves toxic hydrocarbons, dioxins and toxic waste. Cotton camping clothes and accessories can also come with a heavy enviro-cost. Industrial cotton production can involve the massive use of deadly pesticides, especially in the 3rd World where much of the cotton production now originates.

 I’ve been on trail crews where these issues were discussed, leading some to wonder if we were just making things worse by making it easier for people to trample on what wilderness that remains. Still, if Americans become even more estranged from the natural world, victims of what author Richard Louve calls “nature deficit disorder”, what good could possibly come of that?

But is a wilderness some place that has been undisturbed by humans? The first humans arrived here in North America at least 15,000 years ago, perhaps much earlier. They likely contributed to the extinction of such Ice Age mammals as giant sloths, horses, mammoths, mastodons, lions, saber toothed cats and others as the glaciers retreated, putting eco-stress on these mega-mammals. After the climate warmed and the North American landscape changed, humans began to shape that environment to suit their own needs.

In the Disney film, Bambi’s mom says, “Man is in the forest,” in icy tones that suggest humans are interlopers. Yet men and women have lived in the forests of North America for thousands of years. When the Europeans arrived, they found a magnificent eastern forest that stretched all the way to the present state of Illinois. It was said a squirrel could jump from tree to tree all the way across it. They also found a complex system of trails that indigenous Native American people used for hunting, trade, religious pilgrimages and war. As I did my trail work, I would wonder how they were maintained in a time before metal tools. Some of these ancient trails became the routes of our modern roads and highways.

Smokey Bear may have warned against forest fires, but Native Americans were sophisticated forest ecologists and used fire as a means of managing forests to their best advantage. They used fire to favor trees that provided acorns, walnuts & chestnuts. They grew crops in the clearings they created. The oak savannas formerly found in the Midwest were prime hunting grounds for grazing animals, as was the Midwestern tall-grass prairie. Both required fire to maintain their integrity.  Sustainable organic food production is an old American tradition.

 Wilderness doesn’t mean a place devoid of people, but rather what the people do when they are there. The question for us is whether we can have an industrial civilization that does not turn the planet into a Mordor-like desolate wasteland. 

Money Tree

This is not idle speculation. Climate change is here and no one can accurately predict its outcome. Much of the knowledge we have gained about wilderness is obsolete. The Inuit people of the Far North can no longer trust centuries old wisdom about when it is safe to go out on the ice. The ice melts differently now. People make grim jokes about the “Former” Glacier National Park, speaking of it as people talk about the Former Soviet Union. The glaciers are melting and may be gone as soon as 2030. Bark beetles, who like the warmer climate, are ravaging western forests where trees are already stressed by climate change. The  “forests of torches” described by Herbert E. McLean are now incendiary bombs because a warming climate makes already devastating fires more destructive.

 The Forest Service and other agencies charged with protecting America’s natural legacy finally did realize that fire does have its place in the wilderness, but for much of America’s wild lands the realization came too little too late. They were so choked with fuel, their development so distorted, that natural fire would no longer have the same cleansing effect. This was also true of deliberately set human prescribed burning, which can all too easily can go out of control under these circumstances. Fire historian Stephen Pyne put it this way, "Wildland fire is not a precision instrument. It is not some kind of Bunsen Burner that can be turned on and off at will.”

Among the Cherokee people who helped to shape the forests of the American Southeast, the American black bear was seen as a wise spirit guide and companion. Today Smokey and Bambi have united in a new ad campaign that recognizes the importance of fire in the wilderness. Smokey has begun to take on the traditional mythological role of the American black bear, a guide, not a propagandist.

 But perhaps Smokey needs to take on a greater challenge to wild lands, the rapid change in climate caused by the industrial civilization who created his myth in the first place. Teaching people to douse a  campfire is a good thing, but teaching people to change the course of human civilization will take a wise bear indeed.


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