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Where There's Smokey There's Fire

Is the Bear just the figment of an advertising man's imagination or is he a worthwhile, as well as a beloved, symbol? That is a burning issue nowadays among some foresters and conservationists

Heretics, iconoclasts and boat rockers are abroad in Smokey land. There are people now touting fire, suggesting that perhaps we do not have enough of it, just as others in these troubled times are speaking out for coyotes, marijuana, fagotry and all manner of other formerly nasty and indefensible things.

Not long ago the Los Angeles Times ran a front-page interview with a U.S. Forest Service researcher named Bill Beaufait. Beaufait was working in the Service fire lab in Missoula, Mont, and was an advocate of "controlled burning"—touching off fires in the woods for the good of the forest. "We have to get beyond the bear in our approach to forest fires," Beaufait was quoted as saying. "Smokey the Bear is grade school stuff and grade school is where Smokey belongs."

There probably were no more interested readers of the Beaufait story than a forest fire prevention committee convening that very morning in Los Angeles to give advice and encouragement to Smokey. "We read the story," says Mal Hardy, who was present at the session as the Forest Service's full-time manager of Smokey. "We kidded a little about putting a torch in Smokey's hand." However, Hardy, a media-minded man who is a fierce partisan of his bear and meal ticket, gives the impression that the Beaufait comments did not cause belly laughs. The group did not equip Smokey with a torch and on the spot decided not to award Bill Beaufait a Silver Smokey, an honor for which he had been considered. (The bear statuettes are handed out annually to outstanding fire preventers, just as touchdown clubs hand out MVPs.) "Beaufait has been active in research and makes a good impression on the public," Hardy says, "but that sort of sensationalism does not serve a constructive purpose."

Hardy adds that on several occasions, speaking more or less ex cathedra, he himself has had some good words to say about controlled burning. Furthermore, Smokey is not against fire; he is simply for fire prevention, a sophistry that on the surface appears similar to Adolf Hitler explaining that he is not anti-Jewish, just pro-Aryan. Speaking for himself, his staff, several consulting admen and agencies who arrange Smokey's affairs as carefully as they would those of a bar of soap, Hardy says, "We have kicked around the idea of broadening Smokey's message but in this business you do better keeping things simple and direct. If we can assist in publicizing legitimate ecological messages, we will try to help, but Smokey is going to stick to fire prevention, which I still regard as being an extremely valid and useful message."

Growing numbers of scientists and technicians criticize this simplistic approach. The fire freaks tend to be less prominent and media-wise than Smokey and his brain trusters. Nevertheless they are becoming increasingly bold about accusing the good bear and his crowd of promoting silly and false notions. Their argument is that fire is a natural phenomenon in the category of sunlight, heat, cold, precipitation, wind, flood and erosion and as such has a profound influence on the creation and maintenance of terrestrial life and upon the relationships between life forms. Therefore, it is as nonsensical to think of fire as evil and to mount advertising campaigns against it as it would be to create a Blinky the Bat who incessantly squeaked "Beware of light, folks—it blinds."

Among other things, fire is one of the most potent agents of rapid change within our biological system, and change is an absolutely necessary process for the maintenance of that system. The recent and romantic infatuation with ecology has tended to obscure rather than clarify this fundamental fact of natural history.

However necessary and inevitable change may be, individual creatures and species are like hard-core Sierra Clubbers inasmuch as they do not welcome change warmly nor suffer it gladly. The brontosaurus was never hatched who could say, "Ah yes, my time is past. I must depart gracefully or turn myself into a woolly mammoth." All creatures must be forced to accept change, like some incredibly bitter medicine. So fire plays its part.

A grove of oaks, for example, displays like all communities certain greedy, autocratic and change-resistant tendencies. The longer the oaks live, the larger they become and the more they dominate their neighborhood. The foliage shades out lesser species. The oak roots monopolize water and nutrients. The number of animal species dwindles to those that can live in an oak-dominated habitat. In a dry climate the accumulated litter of fallen oak leaves annually grows thicker, making it difficult for young trees to become established. (Among those choked out are oak seedlings. In our system, the overwhelming success of a species—resisting change because of exceptional luck or ability—leads only to suicide.) A good crackling fire will quickly clean out a wood dominated by one type of tree and open the glade to habitation by a far more varied community of plants and animals.

Many biological communities, particularly fragile, short-cycle ones, have come to depend on fire and the rapid changes it effects. Notable among these are the prairies, savannas and woodland glades that man and many other creatures have found particularly attractive. In a natural state, unless regularly burned, grasslands rather quickly disappear, overwhelmed by their own litter and crowded out by scrub and brush. When the grasslands decline, so do many communities of animals, large and small.

A number of species show direct adaptation to fire. There are certain kinds of evergreens that cannot reproduce—whose cones will not open to allow seeds to fall—unless exposed to the intense heat generated by fire. Among these is the Michigan jack pine which, along with a tiny bird, the Kirtland's warbler, played a leading role in one of the odder natural history mysteries of recent times. The warbler has always been rare, and its breeding grounds in the Michigan jack pines of the Huron National Forest were not located until 1908. However, even there the warblers were doing poorly and appeared headed for extinction. Then in the 1950s ornithological researchers discovered that the birds were suffering from lack of fire. For obscure reasons, it seemed they would nest only in groves of 7-to 20-year-old jack pines. Such trees were in short supply since, in approved Smokey fashion, federal foresters had been preventing fire in the area for a quarter of a century. Without fire and 300-degree temperatures, the jack pines did not reproduce and the warblers were soon without the young trees. After considerable soul-searching the Forest Service in the 1960s regularly began burning sections of pine in the Huron forest to accommodate the Kirtland's. The birds now have plenty of nesting sites in the young groves.

That wildfire is a creative, not destructive, force appears to have been obvious to primitive men. Archaeological evidence indicates that early hunting and food-gathering tribes not only survived in but sought out fire-vulnerable areas. More than likely they looked forward to big fires as they did to the rainy season and for much the same reason. After fires, tender, edible plants appeared. Fire kept the browsing lands open for the herbivores on which men preyed. It burned out the underbrush, making it easier for men to travel and hunt. After they came to understand the beneficial effects of fire, men began to practice intentional—if not controlled—burning. It was the custom of many North American Indians to leave their fires burning when they left their camps. They did so not because of savage sloth and indifference, as the whites who met them sometimes claimed, but because they apparently—and rightly—reasoned that fire was good for them and the countryside. The Appalachian Balds, magnificent highland prairies in the Eastern mountains, were created by Indians who generation after generation burned off the knobs for the sake of better hunting and easier living. (The Balds, one of the more scenic parts of the Appalachians, are now in danger of disappearing because of our anti-fire attitudes.)

In California the open glade and grove parklands of the Sierras that so impressed the first mountain men were created by Indian land managers using fire as their tool. John Muir was among the earliest to note that the beauty and vigor of the Sierra flora was a product of human incendiarism. In 1963 another naturalist, A. Starker Leopold, pointed out the results of protecting this once parklike scene in the Sierra for three-quarters of a century from the "ravages of fire": "Much of the west slope is a dog hair thicket of young pine, white fir, incense cedar and mature brush—a direct function of overprotection from natural ground fires. Within the national parks the thickets are even more impenetrable than elsewhere."

As with so many other primitive (but on the whole sensible) attitudes, man lost his easy tolerance of fire when he became a sedentary property owner. It is something less than a calamity to have a brush but, which you can replace in a day or two and which you did not plan to live in very long anyway, go up in flames. It is quite another thing to lose a farm or ranch that you have mortgaged your life to possess or a stand of timber from which you hope to make a fortune.

Being a people with an especially high regard for accumulating and protecting property, Americans traditionally have had violent anti-fire feelings. The pioneers' first exposure to forest blazes in the northeast section of the continent helped to formalize these feelings. Ground fires do not ignite easily or regularly in moist northern woods which may go decades, even half a century, without a major fire. During this time dead wood accumulates. Then there comes a dry season or two in which the trash becomes tinder. When the inevitable fire does erupt in a northern forest it is apt to be big, hot and tenacious, cleaning off a lot of country in a short time and allowing the woodland cycle to recommence. All of which is natural but temporarily hard on many creatures, particularly property-owning ones who are concerned with short-term processes. These formidable fires occurred in cycles throughout the history of the northeastern forests but, after the Europeans arrived, they flared with greater frequency. Our cut-and-run logging practice created combustible brush and sawdust far more rapidly than did the forest left to its own devices. Furthermore there were a lot more people living, working, cooking and warming themselves in the woods, and thus a great many new sources of fire.

During the latter half of the 19th century, when the logging boom was at its peak, a series of horrendous fires ripped through Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota, some of them burning up a million acres at a time. These holocausts scared the general public, property owners and foresters. In consequence, it became an article of absolute faith within the forestry profession, then being established, that the first job was to fight fire. For a time this no-burn policy seemed not only to make good sense in terms of property protection but also to be biologically justifiable. The dank, damp northern woods were naturally adapted to long fire cycles and, as desert plants can endure long droughts, they survived for years with no visible ill effects despite the lack of fire.

But the forests of this country are large and varied, and many, particularly in the South and West, had much different requirements. These woodlands, being drier and containing more fire species, required regular, even annual exposure to small ground fires. Southern woodsmen knew from experience that fire was good for their forests, no matter what the Yankee silviculturists claimed, and following the practice of the Indians they burned their lands each winter. This struck the northern woodsmen who had come to dominate the forestry profession and schools as being another manifestation of the backward and slovenly character of the Southern cracker. When the Forest Service was organized early in this century, the feds sent in modem foresters to occupy the Southern woods and they promptly put a stop to fire of all sorts.

As has been elsewhere noted, the South tends to be a rebellious region in many ways. As early as World War I, a few Southern foresters and timber-company technicians—not more than a dozen men in all—began the study of what is now known as fire ecology. Their motivation was practical and commercial. They knew their forests were going to hell under "scientific" Northern management. They suspected that the no-fire policy was an important factor in the decline and wanted to accumulate proof supporting their suspicions. Eventually they were able to demonstrate among other things that fire, if allowed to burn regularly and naturally, does not kill or maim fire-adapted forests; rather it improves their vigor by thinning and pruning them, and it does not impoverish the soil as was popularly assumed. Actually fire adds to the nutrients. Cattle and many species of wildlife feed better and gain more weight when foraging on burned-over land than on range that is protected from fire.

Finally, the absence of regular fire creates an unnatural fire hazard. If, among species that are adapted to periodic burnings, small fires are prevented, the dry litter accumulates rapidly and makes inevitable a large, hot fire which the Southern and Western forests cannot tolerate and from which they recover slowly or not at all. The longer a forest goes unburned, even in the Northeast, the more devastating the blaze will be when it eventually comes. It is cheaper and safer for men to start fires when and where it suits the land than to wait for them to occur accidentally. So the Southern foresters began using controlled burning as a land management tool.

About the same time another pioneer investigator. Ornithologist H. L. Stoddard, was working in Southern piney woods where, though starting from a different point of interest, he arrived at much the same conclusion. Stoddard came south in 1924 at the request of some estate owners in Florida and Georgia. He was asked to find out what was happening to the bobwhite quail, the shooting of which on big plantations in the area had become a ritualized ceremony on the order of the Japanese tea service. Stoddard worked for seven years on the problem. In 1931 he published a natural history classic, The Bob While Quail. He declared the quail was in trouble, principally because fire had been too long and successfully kept out of the woods. Without fire, the glades in which the quail normally foraged and nested had grown up in scrub that was at best a marginal habitat for the birds. Among Stoddard's patrons was Henry Beadel, a New York architect, who became so interested in the ornithologist's work that on his death he left his plantation. Tall Timbers, and an endowment to further the study of fire ecology. Located 20 miles north of Tallahassee, the Tall Timbers Research Station is now directed by two brothers, Ed and Roy Komarek, who began working with Stoddard and Beadel in the 1930s. The station and the Komareks try to spread the good word about fire and to combat misinformation on the subject.

There is a kind of pugnacious missionary zeal about the Komarek brothers and other pioneer fire researchers. This is not surprising since most of them are veterans of bitter professional wars in which, against the opposition of the forestry Establishment, particularly the Forest Service, they have sought to make their findings known and gain respectability for fire ecology. S. W. Greene, one of the most influential of the early fire ecologists, was drummed out of the Department of Agriculture for daring to suggest in the 1920s that fire was good for rangeland. Ed Komarek, while engaged in experimental burning on private land, was threatened with arrest by a forester.

The feud spilled over into other land-management agencies. "I got involved not so much because I suddenly became aware of the value of fire, but because I got a chance to see what an unfortunate effect unnecessary fire fighting can have on a natural area," recalls Lyle McDowell, now head of operations for the National Park Service. "In the early '50s I was stationed in the Everglades in charge of fire control in the eastern section of the park. I was under the supervision of an oldtime forester who had spent his life fighting and, I guess, hating fires. In the pine lands of the eastern section our standing orders were, once we got word of a fire, to call for the bulldozers, cut fire lines around it and put it out as soon as we could. I was flying over the area one day and was suddenly struck by how much it was beginning to look like a construction job, mile after mile of bulldozer trails. I got to thinking that if we went on protecting the park against fire in this way much longer we were going to level it.

"I began reading everything I could find on fire ecology and decided fire would probably be good for the pines; that controlled burning at the proper time of year was the cheapest and least objectionable way of managing that land. I took my plan to the forester, who listened until I finished and then said, 'You've read a lot of books, but let me tell you something. As long as I am here nobody is going to start any fires on this land.' That was more or less that."

Time and bureaucratic evolution have vindicated McDowell. Controlled burning is now routinely used in the Everglades and other parks. Today, with McDowell as a prime mover, the park system is considered to be the most progressive land agency as far as fire policy is concerned. In California, where among other things the NPS is charged with caring for the Sequoias, fire is being used to save and restore the groves from the unnatural effects of 40 years of fire suppression.

Even more shockingly, from the standpoint of old fire fighters, the Park Service has gone a step beyond controlled burning and is looking with a kind eye on wildfires, allowing them to burn unchecked in some places. The Bureau of Land Management, the largest of all the federal land agencies, is following the same policy in portions of its vast Alaska holdings, where it was concluded that fire fighting the old way was intolerably expensive and that the lack of fire was again having an adverse effect on the moose, deer and bear populations.

In all of this the Forest Service, popularly assumed to be the woods and fire outfit, has tended to be a follower, not a leader. The Forest Service now "treats" (uses controlled burning on) about half a million acres a year. Service critics, of which there are many, point out that much of this burning is not done in the interests of better management of living forests, but as a way of disposing of trash that results when sizable tracts are clear cut (totally logged). So far as wildfires are concerned, the Service has yet to admit that it has ever done less than its best to put out a forest fire. Largely because of the agitation of Bill Beaufait and other Missoula researchers, for the first time a few "nonsuppression zones" are being considered on an experimental basis in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Area of northern Idaho.

Various explanations have been advanced by outsiders for the Forest Service's timidity, if not hostility, toward fire. One theory has it that fire fighting has become a big business within the agency. Around 25% of the Service's operating budget is spent on putting out wildfires. Not only do a lot of Service jobs depend on dousing fires, but a lot of suppliers make a lot of money selling equipment for this purpose. These suppliers, it is claimed, tend to influence Service policy as munitions makers are said to influence that of the Pentagon.

Another possible explanation is that the Forest Service, until recently, has considered itself a caretaker of natural resources, not an environmental agency. It is property-conscious and views a forest not as a biological community but as so many board feet of lumber; therefore it regards fire as a thief.

There is a third theory. Never particularly forward about opposing lumbermen, miners and ranchers who use the national forests—in fact often acting as if it were their agent—the Forest Service has tended to use fire as a convenient scapegoat to cover up exploitative atrocities and scandals.

The most common—and on the surface most plausible—explanation is simply that Government foresters have so long and devoutly believed fire to be bad and fought it so hard that recanting the creed now is emotionally, intellectually and administratively difficult. Generally, fire ecologists describe this almost inbred anti-fire bias as the Smokey the Bear attitude.

"Smokey Bear represents...a formidable obstacle in the pursuit and public acceptance of demonstrably sound conservation attitudes and policies," wrote Eldon Bowman in American Forests. "If static symbols cannot accommodate a growing science perhaps these symbols should be eliminated." Bowman suggested that if Smokey were to be kept around he might better pose for a poster "depicting animals suffering from malnutrition against a background of dense forest tangle with a rib-thin Smokey saying, 'Please, folks—let the fires go. We need them so we can live.' "

Ed Komarek, the Tall Timbers firebrand, is even more outspoken and has suggested that a false-advertising suit against Smokey is possibly in order. "The bear is a creation of the advertising industry and public-relations men," he says. "They have used him for a quarter of a century to conduct an expensive campaign, the effect, if not purpose, of which has been to promote ecological nonsense."

Whether Komarek's analysis of Smokey's impact is true or not, his comments on the bear's genesis are substantially correct. Smokey is a creature of the product conference, not the deep woods. Flack types have always controlled his destiny. Smokey came into being in August 1944 as the brainchild of Young and Rubicam and other ad boys on the War Advertising Council. They were noodling around for a fire-prevention gimmick. (One of their earlier slogans was CARELESS MATCHES AID THE AXIS, which neatly tied together two known evils.) Originally the think tankers wanted to match Bambi against fire, but Walt Disney was sticky about permissions. Then they thought about a squirrel but decided rodents did not have enough zing. Finally they ran a bear up the flagpole and found that it flapped. Artist Albert Staehle, who had made his reputation drawing cocker spaniels on Saturday Evening Post covers, was commissioned to depict a bear. Implicit instructions were given as to the kind of bear. He was, according to Forest Service annals, to be a characterization with a short nose (Panda style), brown or black fur, with an appealing expression, a knowledgeable but quizzical look, perhaps wearing a campaign hat, which at the time typified the outdoors and the woods. The artist was warned to avoid simulating bears used in Boy Scout publications.

The resulting creation served for several years, but was not judged to be exactly the right bear. In 1948 the awkward, clumsy, almost comical Staehle bear was given a facelifting by Rudolph Wendelin, a Forest Service artist, and emerged as a "more mature characterization, inspiring trust and affection." In 1950 a bear cub was found in the wake of a New Mexico forest fire and as a reward was brought to Washington, caged up in the National Zoo as the "living" Smokey. In 1952 the Smokey symbol was in effect copyrighted by an act of Congress. Since then Smokey has become probably the world's best-known bear, certainly no worse than fourth behind Goldilocks' reluctant hosts.

In 1968 a 192-page report, "Public Image of and Attitudes Toward Smokey the Bear and Forest Fires," the result of a poll by a Los Angeles opinion-surveying firm, was released by the Forest Service. Among many other things, it disclosed that Smokey was the favorite symbol of 40% of the grade school children interviewed, Pinocchio being a distant second with 27% and the Jolly Green Giant trailing badly with 6%. In teen-age circles Smokey was judged against a different set of opponents but still came out on top, drubbing the Quaker Oats man 34-26. Oddly, in the adult class Smokey's margin was even greater, though he appears to have won by default. Among the big people, 30% liked Smokey the most; trailing far behind, symbol-wise, was the Bell System, Quaker Oats man, TB Seal, Jolly Green Giant and Gold Medallion Homes, all of which polled between a disgraceful 3 and 5%. In retrospect it seems unfortunate that the pollsters did not match Smokey, at least in the open class, against some of his peers, say the Chicago Bears or even the Playboy Bunny.

Smokey is a very rich bear. Since 1952 he has earned some $900,000 by letting toy and novelty manufacturers use his name and image. Furthermore, he gets a lot of expensive, if intangible, gifts, including in 1971 three billion television impressions and three million lines of free ink in newspapers. In all, it is calculated that Smokey picked up $31,610,000 worth of gratis advertising last year.

It naturally irritates Mai Hardy, Smokey's manager, that despite his star's wealth and undeniable popularity, people like Beaufait, Bowman, the Komareks and many others are bad-mouthing the bear as a simple-minded and funky animal. "Their arguments strike me as being mainly emotional," he says. "Some people are so concerned with so-called scientific expertise that they suffer from tunnel vision. They forget broader and more practical considerations. No matter what the advantages of controlled burning, and I think there are many, even if we do let wildfires burn in certain wilderness areas, the accidental fire that destroys property and wildlife is a disaster. I don't think any practical purpose is served by giving the public the notion that it is good to start fires casually or ignore them once they are burning. Smokey's job is specific, to help prevent fires caused by human ignorance or carelessness. We like to think he has been successful at this."

That the Bear has done what Hardy says he is supposed to do is generally assumed to be true. But a report of the Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention Program, published in April 1971, notes that there were more man-caused fires on Forest Service lands in 1970 than in any year since 1942.

"It is a vicious circle," says Ed Komarek. "We have millions of acres in which small fires should have been burning regularly. But we have suppressed fire for so long that dry, combustible forest fuel has built up to the point where now any fire is apt to be a major one if we don't control it. No matter how they cut that Smokey Bear baloney, the impression it has helped to create is that fire is an enemy of man. I am old-fashioned enough to believe that nobody benefits in the long run from misinformation. Because of the way we live, the way we use and misuse the land, the numbers of us, there are going to be places and times when we have to try to prevent and suppress fire. We should not fool ourselves into thinking that when we do we are protecting anything but our property and immediate self-interest. Fire prevention and control is another form of environmental tinkering, like building dams, poisoning predators and draining wetlands.

"If anything, the past 50 years should have taught us that the less we tinker with nature the better off we are. I see no advantage in permitting a cartoon bear to brainwash us into thinking that a natural process is bad."


perhaps wearing a campaign hat

appealing expression

frown or flack fur

"inspiring trout and affection"

knowledgeable but quizzical look

short nose (Panda style)


avoid simulating bears used in Boy Scout publications


Studying To Play the Part

Like many other rich, famous folks, Smokey is treated respectfully and with an air of high seriousness by his associates. For example, a while back at a National Smokey Bear Workshop, a three-day affair held in Atlantic City, James Ricard, fire prevention officer of the state of New Hampshire, gave a presentation on what is expected of anyone who appears in public, in costume, as Smokey. He suggested a number of things, among them:

"Take time to have Smokey properly introduced. This is a very important job that should be handled by an assistant and paves the way to a good, well-received Smokey program.

"Speak plainly and loud enough to be heard by everyone present. It helps to keep your face well up front in the Smokey head—you will find it easier to speak and breathe. It's a lot cooler, too.

"Oftentimes children and adults want to know your name and where you live. My answer has always been: 'My name is Smokey, I live in the wooded hills.' If they still insist, ask them to drop Smokey a note at your home office.

"Costumes shall not be used unless they are clean, complete and in good repair. The blouse should be dry-cleaned. Pants may be laundered. Costumes should be kept under cover before and after use. Smokey's head tucked under a forest officer's arm is a shocking sight to a child and is not to be tolerated. Clowning, horseplay and wisecracks have no place in a Smokey presentation.

"The use of alcoholic beverages by Smokey is out just before or anytime during an appearance.

"Wear rugged, not shiny, shoes, have a shovel for all outdoor shows. Invite children and others to come to you. Never force yourself as Smokey on children or other timid people. If children or others appear frightened, turn away and talk or shake hands with someone else.

"If at all possible try to have a guide or assistant protect you from the dangers of wires, pits, potholes, cars, scooters, carts, very small children, teen-agers, drunks and practical jokers. The guide can do the most effective job by walking ahead and slightly to the side. This enables Smokey to see where he is going and, at the same time, he is better able to hear any directions the guide may wish to give. The assistant, while in the above-mentioned position, has an excellent view and can protect Smokey from the rear. An all-out effort should be made to prohibit anyone from the area directly behind Smokey, particularly in large crowds.

"Never permit anyone to lead you by the hand or otherwise; Smokey leads—others may guide. Remember that you are Smokey the Forest Fire Prevention Bear—the star always."