Smokey Bear Essay

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Smokey Bear is a mascot of the Forest Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) primarily directed at educating the public on the dangers of forest fires and the importance of fire control. While the Forest Service claims that the original Smokey Bear was a cub rescued from a New Mexico fire in 1950, the character was originally drawn and conceptualized by illustrator Albert Staehle for the USDA in 1944, following a number of experimental campaigns using woodland creatures and fearful images of devastating flames. The character was then redesigned for posters and countless uses by Rudy Wendelin, an employee of the USDA. A happy figure resembling a big teddy bear, Smokey Bear is a friendly inhabitant of the forest who asks children to respect nature and be cautious with fire. Sporting a ranger hat, a brass belt, and dungarees and carrying a shovel in his paw, Smokey Bear imitates a forest firefighter.

Smokey Bear allows the U.S. Forest Service to target youth with specific messages, giving children a part to play in the protection of wildlife, public lands in national forests, and grasslands. Although unknown outside the United States, the Smokey Bear character is seen by many Americans as a part of their popular culture and heritage and a symbol of fire prevention. Smokey Bear became so famous that several books were written about him with such titles as Smokey Bear Saves the Forest and Smokey Bear’s Camping Book. A popular song, Smokey the Bear, was written by Jack Rollins and Steve Nelson in 1952. In the late 1960s, Smokey Bear earned his own animated cartoon series.

The popularity of the Smokey Bear character even created some copyright issues. In 1952, Congress passed an act to take Smokey out of the public domain and place him under the USDA. The Advertising Council licensed Smokey’s image to private firms for memorabilia. At some point, the mascot received so much mail from children that the U.S. Post Office decided to give Smokey Bear the personal ZIP code of 20252. A new companion to Smokey Bear, Woodsy Owl, appeared in the 1970s, with his own slogan: “Give a hoot. Don’t pollute.” Both mascots appear from time to time in big events organized by the U.S. Forest Service. A commemorative stamp was issued for Smokey Bear’s 40th birthday in 1984. Not surprisingly, Smokey Bear has his own Web site today.

The strong and central message of Smoky Bear has been made problematic, however, by changes in ecological theory. For seven decades, Smokey Bear repeated the slogan, “Only you can prevent forest fires” (reminiscent of Uncle Sam’s slogan, “I want YOU for the U.S. Army”). This is in keeping with the fact that a majority of forest fire ignitions remain human-caused, including abandoned campfires and cigarettes thrown from cars. The tone of the campaign, however, has arguably led to the notion that all forest fire is inherently unnatural, an idea far out of step with current ecological science, now grounded in paleoecology and disequilibrium theory, as well as in the practical experience of both the Forest Service and the Park Service.

After 2000, Smokey’s famous slogan was slightly changed to, “Only you can prevent wildfires,” perhaps in deference to that more complex understanding. Generally, however, the Smokey Bear campaign is rooted in an era and management history of total fire control, one with less ecological and economic relevance now than it had in the mid-20th century.


  1. Bill Adler, ed., Letters to Smokey Bear (Wonder Books, 1966);
  2. Elliott S. Barker, Smokey Bear and the Great Wilderness: The Story of the Famous Symbol of Fire Prevention (Sunstone Press, 1997);
  3. Kennon Graham, Smokey Bear Saves the Forest (Whitman, 1971);
  4. William Clifford Lawter, Smokey Bear 20252: A Biography (Lindsay Smith Publishers, 1994).

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