It’s time we give an overdue nod of gratitude to that venerable bruin of fire prevention: Smokey Bear, who just turned 63 this August.
At a time when bears are being tranquilized and relocated all over the West for Dumpster-diving and campsite pantry raids, Smokey remains the only honorable bear role model. You won’t find him sorting through trash cans. He doesn’t have to. At 63, he can collect social security and bask in the admiration he deserves.
It was during World War II, on Aug. 9, 1944, that Smokey first graced government-issued posters. Fire prevention was a big worry at the time, and since most able-bodied men were working toward the war effort, the number of personnel devoted to firefighting was significantly limited. Enter the Advertising Council, a partially government-funded nonprofit advertising group, known mostly nowadays for its annoying messages reminding you not to beat your wife and kids.
But back in the 1940s, the Ad Council brilliantly came up with the strong, silent, outdoor cool character of Smokey Bear, who even to this day remains a powerful communicator. He also compares favorably to other Ad Council mascots, such as those clueless crash-test dummies, and that creepy McGruff the Crime Dog, with his raspy voice and trench coat.
Smokey reigns supreme as the Ad Council’s most memorable achievement. When rural Western television stations can’t find late-night advertisers, they run strings of depressing PSAs, (public service announcements) full of drug addicts, drunk drivers and abusive parents. So when Smokey Bear appears on screen, strong, powerful and cuddly at the same time, we pay attention to his message of personal responsibility: "Only YOU can prevent forest fires."
For some reason, Smokey Bear and his message work. It’s not your typical tax-dollar wasting, politically correct, nanny-state PSA . He actually makes us WANT to prevent forest fires. We become careful with our hunting cigar, and we douse and shovel our campfire to the point where you couldn’t relight that pit with a tank of gas and a blowtorch. After all, we don’t want to let Smokey down.
Unfortunately, lightning doesn’t strike twice. A 1970s attempt to give Smokey a partner, Woodsy Owl, didn’t go over well. I should know. I played Woodsy in a Memorial Day parade in Granby, Colo.
You remember Woodsy, don’t you? He was short and overweight, with eyeballs the size of hubcaps. He wore green trousers and the type of pointy green hat that only looks good on Robin Hood.
My dad, who worked for the Forest Service, had the height and stature to wear the Smokey Bear costume on the float. I got the bulky costume of Woodsy, which, when standing next to my decked-out father, made me look like Smokey’s dorky little friend. A strong, tall and proud black bear like Smokey is cool. He wears jeans and a stylish flat-brimmed hat, and carries a mean-looking metal shovel. The girls all like him and the boys respect him. It may also help that he never says a word – not ever – no matter how environmentalists and other critics provoke him. Woodsy Owl, on the other hand, with his "Give a hoot, don’t pollute" line, gets beaten up on the school playground.
But that is to be expected. Nobody can compare to Smokey. He’s been officially recognized by an act of Congress. He has his own action figure and even his own ZIP code. He’s had a radio show, postage stamp and has been in several movies. All of this celebrity, and not once has he ever had to shade his mug in front of paparazzi as he lumbers off to rehab. Yes, there are other famous bruins out there, but to Yogi Bear fans, I ask the obvious: Who would you take in a fight?
Smokey’s even smart enough to admit mistakes – a rare event for any public figure – as when he finally realized that fires are important for the health of our public lands. His early messages promoted complete fire suppression, a policy that we now know does nothing but allow the buildup of fuel, which in turn makes the inevitable blowups more devastating. These days, Smokey recognizes that forest fires often take on the role of "Nature’s Housekeeper."
So I hope you’ll join me in celebrating the birthday of this enduring and endearing American icon. Happy 63rd birthday, Smokey Bear. We’ll sing "Happy Birthday" to you, but we decided to skip the 63 burning candles. We’re sure you’ll understand.
Steve Beauregard is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a columnist for the Free Press in Grand Junction, Colorado.