Now they come for Smokey Bear. . .

November 12, 2019 • 9:30 am

If I tell you that the following article is from HuffPost (yes, I’m cooling my heels on a docked ship), could you tell me whether the answer is “yes” or “no”?

The answer, of course, is “yes”, as you probably guessed. As cultural icons are “canceled” one by one, Smokey (remember: it’s Smokey Bear, not Smokey The Bear) was doomed. Why? According to HuffPost, the subheading gives the reasons: “his advice is outdated, incomplete, and ignores climate change.”

But if you grew up with the 75-year old ursine icon, and often saw signs like the one below, you’ll be puzzled. For Smokey’s job was to keep humans from being careless about fire in the wilderness, that, is, he was created to prevent anthropogenic fires, not fires by lightning or other natural causes. After all, you can’t prevent a fire caused by lightning. But being sure that you’re careful with campfires and matches is not outdated advice, nor does it ignore climate change!

But is Smokey’s advice incomplete? Apparently so, for it lacks nuance (always run when you see that word!).  Why? Because, as scientists have known for a long time, some ecosystems depend on regular natural fires for their maintenance, and when those are prevented, the ecosystem changes.

Many conifer forests, for example, depend on fairly regular natural fires to prevent overgrowth (see more in this article), to retain some fire-dependent species (i.e., red pine) from being displaced by deciduous trees, and to create a mixture of live and dead trees essential for some wildlife. The red-cockaded woodpecker and black-backed woodpeckers are fire-dependent bird species. Nowadays controlled fires are often set to keep ecosystems as natural as possible.

And so HuffPost calls out Smokey for his ignorance:

The aggressive fire exclusion Smokey championed proved detrimental to long-term ecosystem health, leaving forests choked with a dangerous amount of vegetation that can fuel catastrophic fires ― a phenomenon that scientists have dubbed “the Smokey Bear effect.” Climate change is only making these infernos worse, with year after year of bigger, more erratic and highly destructive wildfires.

In other words, Smokey ― the most important figure in fire prevention and the longest-running public service advertising campaign in U.S. history ― may be a net negative for the environment.

. . .Smokey’s enduring legacy is, well, complicated. In a 2013 paper titled “Be careful what you wish for,” two Forest Service researchers wrote that Smokey’s success in preventing fire “has come at considerable cost,” including a “decline in forest health, an increase in fuel loads in some forests, and wildfires that are more difficult and expensive to control.” 

And yet aggressive fire suppression remained “the order of the day.”

Two responses. First, the suppression of natural forest fires in habitats where they are needed to maintain ecosystem health is not Smokey’s fault! This came from a general scientific ignorance about fire-dependent habitats. I seriously doubt that firefighters put out such fires because of Smokey. Further, even natural fires were, and are, still being extinguished when they endanger human habitation. That’s what happens when humans infringe on natural habitat. Further some natural fires occur in habitats that don’t depend on regular burning for their maintenance. Those, too, should be controlled.

Further, Smokey’s dictum has always been directed toward campers and hikers, not at firefighters. To several generations of Americans, it was “be very careful with matches and campfires in the wilderness.” That was good advice, and remains so.

Now comes the bit that makes me laugh. It’s not just individuals who cause fires by ignoring Smokey’s message. It’s those blasted corporations! Where is Bernie when we need him? So the word “you” in Smokey’s message “Only you can prevent wildfires” is misguided. “You” can be Pacific Gas and Electric, and so Smokey lacks nuance!

Yet Smokey Bear’s message has remained largely the same. The only change to his signature catchphrase came in 2001, when it was updated from “Only YOU can prevent forest fires” to “Only YOU can prevent wildfires,” to account for the fact that fire is not limited to forests. But while about 85 percent of wildland fires in the United States are human-caused, some of the worst fires in recent years, including last year’s Camp Fire, the deadliest and most destructive blaze in California’s history, were started not by careless individuals but by California’s investor-owned utility.

Perhaps his name should be changed to Bernie Bear! (The “Burn” homonym would be a nice touch.)

Finally, Smokey’s message has been updated to reflect fire-dependent ecosystems! HuffPost mentions the extensive information on Smokey’s website about fire-dependent ecosystems (see the piece below as well as this one on the “Benefits of Fire“), but largely ignores it, so intent are they on demonizing this poor ursid.

Global warming will worsen the probability of wildfires, both natural and anthropogenic, but Smokey’s message to humans remains relevant regardless of climate change. Yes, Smokey’s message can be updated, but how often does anybody really see a Smokey Bear ad these days? Here are some suggestions about how to update him:

Sarah Berns of Winthrop, Washington, has worked on both sides of wildland firefighting, first as a Forest Service smokejumper and later in fire prevention. In August she published a piece in Outside magazine arguing that Smokey “desperately needs a makeover.”

. . . Berns says Smokey’s transformation should be drastic. In her Outside piece, she calls for swapping Smokey’s “dad jeans for green firefighting pants and a yellow shirt,” giving him a new voice that appeals to a younger, more diverse audience, and putting him to work on prescribed burns. “Smokey, pick up a drip torch and lead by example,” she wrote.

Yep, Smokey is bad because he’s a Boomer Bear! Dump those dad genes! I’m not sure what voice would appeal to a “younger more diverse audience” since Smokey’s already a bear of color, but I’ll leave that to the ad people.

It’s certainly important to educate the public about the positive role of wildfires, but more important to educate the firefighters and naturalists, who, of course, are already learning. Smokey’s influence has waned, and I haven’t heard of him in years. But his message—to be careful about fires in the wilderness—has stayed with me since I was a kid. This whole article could have been written without the extensive attacks on a lovely and useful symbol, but that’s now how the kids roll.

67 thoughts on “Now they come for Smokey Bear. . .

  1. “… Smokey is bad because he’s a Boomer Bear! … but that’s now how the kids roll.”

    I’m surprised you didn’t deploy the new favorite ElderShame phrase of the kids …

    “Ok, Boomer.”

    Do you know about that one?

    1. For the first time I got called a “boomer” by a kid last week. He replied to my comment with “This is what happens when a boomer does tech.” I didn’t tell this 15-year-old that, as founder and CEO of a computer software company, I probably knew way more tech than he did. Oh well. I am sure I have a lot more of this kind of thing to look forward to.

    2. There is no doubt that some people think this is just the right time to try to instigate generational warfare. For example, Politico has published recently an article entitled “How the baby boomers broke America.” With Trump, the eminent danger in some many areas, is this moment to try to alienate Boomers that oppose Trump?

      It is not unheard of the younger generation to resent an older one. Back in the 60s, it was common to hear the expression “don’t trust anybody over 30.” It was totally inane and remarkably when people reached 30, they stopped saying it. So, it is true that some people in an older generation have screwed young folk. But, until parents stop caring about the future of their children and grandchildren, I consider whining about the Boomer generation nothing more than that.

      1. Agreed. But we really did fuck up the world, so the young-uns have good reasons to be pissed at us. Future generations will look back on ours with the same kind of bewilderment and disgust we have for the slavery generations. We knew what was happening and how to prevent it but we let it happen anyway. Even though we do indeed care very much for our children, we have handed them a potentially existential disaster of our own making.

        1. I don’t understand what “… we really did fuck up the world.” is supposed to express.

          If there’s something an individual can change, change it. Grow a plant. Buy an electric car. If an individual can’t change it right away, it’s better to do something rather than nothing – save up for the electric car, donate to #TeamTrees and let the Arbor Day Foundation ensure a tree will grow for decades. Grand change will come slowly. I point to the ozone layer as a success story of that.

          So I don’t understand what the statement is expressing.

          1. Sorry

            Does the article’s authors explain the expression you used?

            I was assuming you composed the expression.

          2. I am looking at the link.
            Right away, the phrase “Forest gain is not involved in the calculation of tree cover loss”
            sort of jumps out.
            When I tried to find exactly what they mean by that, I found the following:
            “Additionally,tree cover loss does not take tree cover gain into account.”

        2. I am not sure I agree with you on that. I am a little too young for a boomer, but I really don’t think the pessimism is warranted.
          One data point worth considering is that kids today have, in fact, almost all survived beyond their first five years. When my parents were born, the child mortality rate was over 30%.
          In 1960, the average family spent 17% of their disposable income on food. That number is now under 9%, and people eat out a lot more than they used to.
          Violent crime is the lowest it has been since 1972.
          Everyone is concerned about CO2, but almost all air pollutants like PB,CO,NO2,SO2, and O3 are down very significantly over our lifetimes, even though the population is much higher and people drive more.
          There is more forested land in the US than there was before we were born, and the number of large trees per forested acre, measured as cubic feet of viable lumber per acre, has doubled since 1953.
          Working hours per week- until 1900, a working week for a person in a non-agricultural job was around 60 hours. That number did not drop below 40 hours until around 1990. We have more time to complain than our parents did. Average US life expectancy is up 8 years from 1965.
          In 1970, about half of the world’s population lived in what the World Bank defines as “extreme poverty”. Now, about 10% of people live in such poverty.

          Those numbers are, I think, pretty accurate. I did not want to post a ton of links, but I can find any particular data if requested.

          1. “air pollutants like PB,CO,NO2,SO2, and O3 are down very significantly over our lifetimes, even though the population is much higher and people drive more.”

            How can lead be an air pollutant? As a part of soot?

          2. Is there a gaseous compound that contains lead? I don’t see how a metal salt – the form I assume was added to gasoline- can be gaseous at common atmospheric temperatures.

          3. Ok, I’m reading the Tetraethyl lead Wikipedia page. It’s a liquid.

            I’m just unclear how lead can be in the gas phase in the atmosphere- I guess as a vapor, like moisture, but I’d think that’d be a very small percent.

          4. Yes

            I was reading that aircraft used Tetraethyl lead. Do they still?The populations around airports were exposed to significant quantities.

            That’s based on Wikipedia.

          5. Jet engines do not require leaded fuel, and the lead content of fuel for piston aircraft has been lowered to about half what it was in 1975.
            It is yet another complicated issue. Aircraft performance and reliability is part of it, and there is a complicated regulatory process in getting equipment certified for flight, which certainly includes engine modifications that might allow piston aircraft to run on premium unleaded gas, as an example.

          6. Yes, yes, yes, I’ve read Pinker too and he -and you- are right; by most measures the world is a better place than it has ever been. However, in the words of the authors of the paper I used as an example of what I meant in my comment;

            Despite 40 years of global climate negotiations, with few exceptions, we have generally conducted business as usual and have largely failed to address this predicament . The climate crisis has arrived and is accelerating faster than most scientists expected. It is more severe than anticipated, threatening natural ecosystems and the fate of humanity.”

            Both Pinker and these authors can be right. It is possible. We are healthier, less poverty stricken, work less hours, etc… AND we are facing a global environmental catastrophe that we caused. WE did this. As the authors said – we’ve had forty years to do what we know needed to be done to avert the crisis. We failed to do even the most basic things responsible stewards should do. The crisis is now upon us and our children are left holding the bag for our malign neglect.

          7. Nonsense. Even when I was a kid (and never mind how many decades ago that was), people were concerned with damage to the environment (does anyone remember Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring”, the year it was published, and what happened as a result?). Yes, we grew up with Smokey Bear’s warning about forest/wilderness fires, and after the Killer Fog of the 1940s there was a lot done concerning air pollution — which is why the infamous London fogs are a thing of the past. US culture in general turned against institutional racism right after World War II, and the Civil Rights Act was passed 20 years later. And doesn’t anyone remember the peace-marchers of the ’60s? So much for the “Boomers” being the problem. Idiocy.

          8. I remember a trip back east to visit mt Dad’s family, deep in Appalachia. What sticks in my mind was my asking why the creek was an odd color and smelled funny. This would have been around 1970. Of course, it was industrial waste dumping.
            Now, that water is clean. And the trees along the bank have had another half century to mature.

            On our ranch, things are different as well. There is one hillside across the river from the house, which I have always known as deep, forbidding woods.
            But when I was going through my great-grandmother’s photographs, I happened to see a very old picture of family members with that hill in the background. The hill had no trees, and was used as a series of small corn fields. What happened there is that as farming efficiency increased, places that were harder to farm were no longer needed. So my great uncle took it upon himself to plant all sorts of trees there. By the time I was born, it was a forest. Now, it looks primeval.
            This has been happening all over the country.

            On the down side, small towns are mostly dead. We have four pot dispensaries and almost nothing else in what used to be a lively frontier outpost. Driving through St. Louis or Detroit is like looking at the ruins of Rome.

  2. Anybody else read: ‘ The Biggest Estate on Earth’ by Bill Gammage. About management of fire by Australian Aborigines. Before 1788 when white settlement began and disrupted so many aspects of the culture including eco-management.

  3. I am now waiting for the declaration that it’s time we drew a line under the past, and declared this the Year Zero.

  4. Yes it’s all about Smokey. The 40 million plus population in California has nothing to do with it. The freedom to build whatever and wherever you want has nothing to do with this problem. And just like Florida allows you to build just about anything you want in the face of Hurricanes, the same is true in California. Burn baby Burn.

    Back in the old pioneer days on the prairie they would plow large circles around the house so it did not burn when the fires came by. Maybe they should plow California.

      1. Nope, you were right first time – it is million.
        But it’s interesting to note that the Yosemite Valley is now significantly obscured by groves of trees, allowed to grow comparatively recently by a “no fire” policy; where we are told that the Native American inhabitants of the valley used to burn it over each year, keeping it open and available for agriculture.

  5. “Dump those dad GENES!” ???
    Freudian slip, intentional double entendre, or just a typo? Perhaps those who are criticized in this post would indeed like to remove “boomer” genes from our gene pool …

  6. Jerry, while you are really docked today, please do not forget, if it is allowed, to trot up the pier and purchase a swim suit for your second expedition.

        1. Yeah, me neither. But were I to take a dip in those frigid waters — which I would be sorely tempted to do, just for the helluvit — some furry animal’s gonna hafta take one for the team. 🙂

      1. I’m all for swimming in the altogether, too — though the cold-water shrinkage in the Antarctic waters must be a bitch. 🙂

  7. PCC(e) has nailed a key element in the
    juvenile pop-Left: Boomerophobia. This also no doubt explains their studied ignorance of the Leninist experiments in constructing Socialist societies: that would be “cold war talk” and “so 1980s”. But they by no means draw a line under the past, since certain aspects of the past are not only to be discussed, they are mandatory. Mention of slavery in the USA, for example, is not dismissed as “so 1860s”—although the East African slave trade is unmentionable, as it might have “Islamophobic” implications.

  8. The wokeness at our local NPR stations (Minnesota Public Radio, KSJN 99.5, KNOW 91.1) is getting extreme.

    They had an ethicist on the other day; and one of his statements that stuck with me was, more or less, “Any air travel, aside from that required for true emergencies, cannot be ethically defended.”

    And I imagine he would say the same thing about eating meat, non-essential travel of any sort, really anything that isn’t consciously minimizing one’s environmental impact.

    In other words, if you are doing anything above the minimum required to eke out bare survival, then you are immoral. Gosh, that will convince and recruit a lot of supports! That kind of life would sure be worth living! That’s what I’ve been practicing deferred gratification for, for that last 4 decades!


    1. That ethicist advances an argument in which it’s not inconceivable that sex for any purpose, even for procreation, except for perhaps a one-child policy — for some, would be immoral. An amalgam of Catholicism with Maoism.

    1. Ha! Good one! Sounds like something the Woke would say. The mere mention (and existence) of ashtrays is a subtle encouragement that smoking is a thing. Thought needs to be controlled!

  9. Furthermore, Smokey Bear is clearly a stereotypical white male. Look at his eyes and color of his straight fur. He definitely personifies a bygone age of toxic masculinity and white privilege.

  10. Contention between the young toward the old and the old toward the young is, for good or ill, in my opinion, biologically driven. But perhaps that’s too deterministic.

    Joe Biden, who teeters at the edge of senescence (and I am no spring chicken), didn’t help matters when he condescendingly called a woman described as a “young activist” a “child” when she asked him an inconvenient question It might have been better or at least funnier if he’d called her a “young whippersnapper.”

    Then there’s this weird example of ageism, when the bizarre sex kitten, Kimberly Guilfoyle, Don, Jr.’s current main squeeze (former wife of Gavin Newsom), said to hecklers at UCLA that “You’re not making your parents proud…”

    What makes this even more bizarre is that she uttered it in the midst of being heckled by far right protesters, who were so vociferous that Don Jr. and Kimberly had to skedaddle off the stage, all the while protesting that right wing protestors NEVER disrupted university events, only the left-wing. Adding to the situation that’s already dripping with irony is that this was a stop on a victim tour Junior was on to tout his new book “Triggered”! The student demonstration was outside the room in which the event took place.

    1. That DJTJ, while flogging a book about left-wing intolerance, was hounded off the stage by right-wingers because he was too snowflake to do a Q&A, may be the amuse-bouche in an all-you-can-eat Trump schadenfreude smörgåsbord (if I might be permitted to mash up my French, German, and Swedish 🙂 ). Here’s hoping, anyway.

      1. That sure is a mouthful but mash it up all you want; and given the culinary nature of your mash-up, it’s surely lame of me to say that it takes the cake but that’s the only response that comes to mind at the moment.

        A very unappetizing plat d’accompagnement is his obscene rhapsody on the Trump family “sacrifices,” sparked or “triggered” by his visit to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

        1. I neglected to give the entire quote from Ms. Guilfoyle: “You’re not making your parents proud by being rude and disruptive,” Guilfoyle yelled at the audience. She added: “I bet you engage and go on online dating because you’re impressing no one here to get a date in person.” This is certainly smörgåsbord syntax; and she was addressing heckling right-wingers — she, being a nutty and self-absorbed exhibitionist hottie, must have thought the guys came to the presentation to pick up chicks.

  11. “He’s our most iconic environmental crusader…”

    Forget the environment – shame on HuffPost for ignoring the literal Islamophobia!

  12. All heckling aside (and there is plenty to heckle in that article). There is a germ of a reasonable point which is we could use an appealing mascot to support the message for greater environmental consciousness. Rather than dilute the important message from Smokey about responsible use of fire, we could also have another mascot to raise awareness about plastics, litter, global warming, and shrinking natural habitats.
    Maybe Ollie The Otter, or Wallace the Wood duck. And to make sure the ladies do their share: Sally Seal.

    1. Yes, keep Smokey and add a new mascot animal. They can have meaningful conversations in the TV ads. What about a female polar bear? It’s a species that everyone knows has been hit heavily by global climate change. How about we name it Whitey? Ok, maybe not.

    2. I vote for Alvin the Chipmunk. Speaking of which, if I have pics of my resident “Alvin,” how do I send them to PCC?

      1. Google Jerry Coyne Chicago university to get his faculty page. His email address is there (slightly obfuscated, but easily decoded).

        (I won’t link it because he never does, he always says “Google it”)

        There are special rules in place with respect to emailing him at the moment because he is in Antarctica and without a good Internet connection, but I think one “Readers’ Wildlife” email would be OK. I’m sure he’ll be responding if I’ve got that wrong.

  13. More and more, I feel that the HuffPo writers are overpaid…

    [And with respect to: Smokey Bear vs. Smokey the Bear…I recall a song from my youth that went,

    “Smokey the Bear, Smokey the Bear
    A howlin’ and a growlin’ and a sniffin’ the air
    He can spot a fire before it starts to flame
    That’s why they call him Smokey, that is how he got his name.”

    Was this song an unauthorized product? I’m asking in all seriousness, because around my house this was a very popular song, so I always thought of him as “Smokey THE Bear”.]

    1. Have mercy Mister Percy! That is an amazing document. Thanks for posting the link — I had to add it to my “weird” file.

      After those considerable instructions and taboos, I’d love to see a drunk and loaded, foul-mouthed Smokey in full costume at a bear convention (bears of the other kind).

      That get-up would frighten genuine ursines. be.

  14. It is my understanding that Smokey Bear is the most successful public relations campaign ever. There is actually legislation that lets the Forest Service license Smokey for fundraising purposes, but surprisingly, when I talked to the person in charge of Smokey licensing in the 1990s, the Forest Service had only made about $1 million over the years, which is not much considering how many Smokey Bear products there are.

    Yes, his original message became outdated, but it would not be hard to reboot a new Smokey message. Smokey Bear was moved from his cage at the National Zoo when he got old in the 1970s and a new upstart was placed in the cage that said Smokey Bear. Smokey was then in a cage that just said black bear, a humiliating move for such a great icon. He is buried in Capitan, New Mexico at Smokey Bear Historical Park.

  15. If like to take this opportunity to raise awareness of #TeamTrees – The Arbor Day will plant – and maximize survival of – one tree per one U.S. dollar. Their goal is 20 million trees by 2020. They are at 15 million now. I donated a small amount. It’s a great statement- 20 million trees.

    There’s some very interesting YouTube videos by Mark Rober, Veritasium, and Smarter Every Day, to promote this project. How does a tree get water up to the top branches? Go to Veritasium to learn how.

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