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At 65, Smokey Bear is still fighting fires

The beloved icon remains the face of the longest-running public service campaign in U.S. history. But keeping him current has been a challenge.

July 24, 2009|Mike Anton

He's a war hero who became a media mogul, celebrity pitchman, pop icon and philanthropist. He's so famous he was given his own ZIP Code, 20252, to handle the fan mail. He is 65 years old but has no intention of retiring. In fact, he looks fitter than ever.

Working outdoors with a shovel will do that.

Smokey Bear was born in August 1944, sired by a committee of ad men and government bureaucrats hoping to safeguard a key war material: wood. Smokey today remains the face of the longest-running public service campaign in U.S. history -- a simple message delivered by an anthropomorphic bear.

But Smokey's story is anything but simple. His uncompromising stance -- "Only you can prevent forest fires" -- helped alter the landscape by reinforcing the idea that fire was an enemy that should be eliminated, that the price to be paid for living in the path of wildfire was vigilance and will.

Smokey's critics say decades of fire suppression helped create forests unnaturally thick with fuel, setting the stage for the infernos that march across the West every year. A sign on forestry professor Ron Wakimoto's office door at the University of Montana sums up this thinking: "Smokey is dead -- prescribe forest fires."

"The forest conditions we have today are directly the result of that campaign," said Wakimoto, a wildfire policy expert who has testified before Congress. "Historically, it's done its damage by creating a very flammable forest."

A few years ago, Smokey's message was tweaked. "Only you can prevent wildfires" makes a subtle distinction intended to reinforce that there are bad fires (intentionally or accidentally set) and fires that promote healthy, less-combustible forests.

Still, Smokey seems a slightly out-of-step missionary in the ever-evolving politics of fire in the West. His message avoids the complex social issues surrounding wildfire. What should be allowed to burn and what should be burned on purpose? If we choose to live in fire country, who should protect us and at what cost?

"I'm not an ad man," Wakimoto said. "With all the different messages that should be conveyed, I can't see Smokey laying out something that nuanced."

Bring this up with one of Smokey's legion of adoring fans -- baby boomers who see him as an emblem of a wholesome bygone era -- and you risk getting punched in the snout.

And please don't call him Smokey the Bear, because the big fella has no middle name.

The protectiveness afforded Smokey begins with the government. His image is tightly controlled. Unauthorized use violates federal law (88 Stat. 244; 31 U.S.C. 488a; 488b-6; 18 U.S.C. 711, 711a). Those who tread on the government's trademark risk a visit from the FBI and a $150,000 fine. But most cases are solved with a stern letter from the company contracted to license Smokey's image.

"We take it very seriously," said Libby Kavoulakis, who oversees Smokey for the Metis Group, a marketing firm in Washington, D.C. "It's ridiculous what you see people do with Smokey. There's always someone out there who has Smokey with a joint. Or different signs in bars in which he is encouraging cigarette smoking. . . . Rude actions in the forest -- Smokey going to the bathroom. It was on a greeting card. We stopped that one too."

Smokey Bear is a $1-million-a-year-plus industry. About 100 manufacturers slap Smokey's image on apparel and tchotchkes, home furnishings and jewelry. A 6-foot, three-dimensional fiberglass figure with steel frame from an Idaho company will set you back $3,500. Licensing fees, which range from 5% to 10%, support fire-prevention education.

Smokey works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and doesn't shill for anyone. His appearance in 1998 at several car shows as part of a deal between Subaru and a nonprofit foundation that raises money for the Forest Service prompted a federal investigation and criticism in Congress. Subaru dropped out.

"If someone wants to make candles or gas-fired lanterns, we're going to say no," Kavoulakis said. "Certain types of apparel like halters and underwear are out too."

Entrepreneur Robin Sykes recalls the moment inspiration hit her husband, Bill, like a pine cone to the head. It was 1980, and the couple were driving to Montana past miles and miles of forest blackened by wildfire.

"We were talking about how you have all these idiots throwing cigarettes out the window," Sykes said. "And my husband says: 'I got an idea: Smokey Bear antenna balls!' "

With those words, their company, Smokey Signals, was born.

"My husband figured if he could sell a million Smokey antenna balls for a dollar apiece, he could retire," she said.

Did it work?

"Hell, no!"

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