Smokey Bear Celebrates 75th Birthday
Smokey Bear is the longest running public service advertising campaign in U.S. history. But the 75-year-old icon hasn’t been without critics. The public campaign to prevent forest fires started out as a war effort — experienced firefighters and other able-bodied men were deployed overseas — protecting forests from unwanted fires was a national safety matter. As decades have passed, Smokey Bear has continued his message, but with a more nuanced approach.
Smokey the Bear, as he was originally known, was created by artist Albert Staehle and authorized by the Forest Service on August 9, 1944. His first catchphrase was, “Smokey Says – Care Will Prevent 9 out of 10 Forest Fires.” In 1947, the message was updated to, “Remember…Only YOU can prevent forest fires.”
The government’s wildfire prevention campaign was incredibly successful, reducing forest fires from an average of 30 million acres nationally in the 1940s to 7.4 million acres by 1988. By the 1990s, there was an average annual wildfire burn of 3.3 million acres. But despite the progress, forest fires are back on the rise and some critics say Smokey himself is to blame — or at least the messaging.
USDA Forest Service researchers Geoffrey Donovan and Thomas Brown published a paper in 2007 called “Be careful what you wish for: the legacy of Smokey Bear” to call attention to the need for a more tolerant attitude toward wildfire that included prescribed burns and fuel management practices. Smokey Bear’s tagline was updated in 2001 to “Only You Can Prevent Wildfires.” Replacing forest fires with wildfires was intended to clarify Smokey’s message of preventing unwanted and unplanned forest fires versus prescribed burns. But professional foresters say there is still a lot of work to be done to educate the public about the difference between forest management practices and wildfire prevention.
According to a Congressional Research Service (CRS) brief, wildfires have burned an average of 7.0 million acres annually since 2000 (doubling the 1990 average). And in 2018, 58,083 wildfires burned 8.8 million acres nationwide, the sixth-largest figure on record in terms of acreage burned (the 2015 fire season was the largest, with 10.1 million acres burned).
Not all wildfires are disasters — many occur in large and largely undeveloped areas. But the ones that do occur near developed communities can cause massive destruction and garner significant media attention. The CRS reports that only about one percent of wildfires are catastrophic — two percent were classified as large or significant in 2018.
The National Association of State Foresters (NASF) calls on the need for forest management to keep forests healthy. That means prescribed burns and silviculture techniques. NASF says that 80 million acres of U.S. forest land is at risk to insect damage and disease. State and privately owned forests make up two-thirds of the nation’s forestland — providing economic, environmental and social benefits to communities. NASF says:
These benefits are maximized when forests are actively managed, but in order for management to occur, diverse and ample markets for wood are needed.
Wood markets allow private landowners to generate the necessary revenue to not only retain ownership of their forestland and keep forests as forests, but also to manage it in ways that benefit all Americans.
Highly diverse wood markets also increase options for forest management on state and federal lands. When markets are capable of accepting and processing all kinds of wood, land managers are empowered to remove undesirable growth that curbs forest productivity and fuels wildfires.
On the eve of Smokey Bear’s birthday, it’s clear that he is far from retirement. He still has a “bear of a job” to do, preventing unwanted forest fires and educating the public on the importance of forest management.