Saturday, July 9, 2011
This past week, a Forest Service employee dressed as Smokey the Bear came to my town along with a very impressive hot air balloon that looked like Smokey’s head. As embarrassing as it is, I have to admit that I even had my picture taken with Smokey, and oddly I was a little excited about it. You would have thought that the plush-suited guy was a real celebrity and I was a devoted fan. Well, maybe he is, and maybe I am. Let's face it: in the world of charismatic Mega Mascots, Smokey is king or close to it.
Today, Smokey’s fame was only reinforced as I drove to Jackson, Wyoming. I went through a number of national forests, and in every one of them, welcoming at every entrance was a picture of Smokey along with some information about the day’s fire-hazard level. Looking at the Smokey picture and the fire-hazard level, I not only thought about Smokey's popularity but also his message, usually delivered with his booming, authoritative voice, “Remember, only you can prevent forest fires.”
Of course, on one level it is hard to do anything but praise Smokey for his many attempts to teach children not to play with matches. My personal experience suggests that not all children absolutely heed Smokey’s plea, but hey, at least he is trying, right?
Yet, the more I have learned about management of our federal lands, I am much more conflicted with the policy of fire suppression that is associated with him. While it is very easy to see why any homeowner living near a national forest would appreciate as much fire suppression as possible, in the longer term, the costs related to such an approach become clear. Fire suppression leads to denser forests, and denser forests increase the likelihood of fires going forward and the intensity that they will likely burn. Furthermore, a number of species of plants rely on fire to assist them spread and thrive.
But, despite the fact that I am conflicted regarding Smokey’s lifework, I still like him.
Yet, all this thinking about Smokey also made me think about another federal-created mascot, Woodsy. I have not seen Woodsy in a long time. As I racked my brain about Woodsy, the more Woodsy seemed like the friend that you lose track of and can't even find on Facebook. Whereas, Smokey is everywhere from my hometown to the woods where I can’t even get cell coverage, there is no trace of Woodsy. He is gone. Where is Woodsy?
Even more disturbing, as I have asked kids if they have seen Woodsy, they do not even know who he is. They know and love Smokey but have never heard of Woodsy. And worse, I have asked a few adults if they had seen Woodsy lately, and in my small sample, none of them even really remembered who Woodsy was—perhaps it was the leaded gasoline they inhaled during childhood. After dropping a few hints to these adults, they seemed to remember Woodsy. As the lights started to come back on, my favorite response was, “Oh yeah, didn’t he say, ‘Don’t start forest fires if you give a hoot.’”
For those of you, like me, who long for Woodsy and his anti-pollution message, here is a dose of Woodsy.
I am not sure if these PSAs really changed behavior. However, on the off chance that they do, if you give a hoot, show it to the kids in your life.
-- Brigham Daniels