SMOKEY BEAR TURNS 80 IN 2024

SPREAD THE WORD: "ONLY YOU..."

Many of us OHV enthusiasts recreate on public lands, especially those of us in the west, and, having been in all 48 of the Continental states, I’ve recreated and camped in most of our National Forests, including New Mexico’s Lincoln National Forest, where the USFS’s mascot Smokey Bear was born. In 1950, wildfire raged through the Capitan Mountains and LNF, and a badly-burned black bear cub was found clinging to a tree and was rescued. The bear was flown to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., in June of 1950 and he became “Smokey Bear,” the national symbol of wildfire prevention and wildlife conservation. The USFS and Ad Council had launched the Smokey Bear ad campaign on August 9th, 1944, so Smokey became the real, living legend and served for 25 years before being replaced by another orphaned black bear at the zoo. He was laid to rest at the LNF’s Smokey Bear Museum when he died.

SMOKEY BEAR TURNS 80

I receive a lot of emails from the USFS and recently got one about how Smokey Bear turns 80 this year and how important his message still is as the nation suffers catastrophic wildfires due to many years of fuel buildup (due in part by the Sierra Club’s Zero Cut policy). I’ll pass parts of the USDA’s “Only You Can Help Smokey” message, written by Robert Hudson Westover:

“It’s been a long drive and an even longer work week, but your spirit lightens at the thought of enjoying a weekend in the great outdoors. As thoughts of work fade away and the wild landscape fills your windshield, you notice a slightly faded roadside sign with the familiar bear from your childhood. Smokey Bear is always reminding those driving past, “Only you can prevent wildfires.” That’s his message, and it often means you’re in a national forest or any number of public lands ready to enjoy all that nature has to offer.

SMOKEY BEAR TURNS 80

“Understandably, some might think Smokey’s message of wildfire prevention contradicts the Forest Service plan to use prescribed fire and some naturally-ignited wildfires to restore forest health. If it is so important to prevent wildfires, why are land managers purposely setting them? While preventing accidental or irresponsible human-caused fires is critical for avoiding unwanted wildfires, many national forests and grasslands need prescribed fires, or in some cases natural fire, to become and/or remain healthy. Because without fire, many forest types fail to regenerate or produce forage necessary for wildlife. In addition, excessive buildup of fallen trees, branches, and other organic materials like leaves and pine needles can serve as kindling and help spread unwanted wildfires.

“Fast forward to the 21st century and land managers now support the concept of prescribed fires, or even managing naturally-started fires as long as they will bring no harm to people, infrastructure, or the forest itself. Areas where it is safe to purposely burn or allow lightning fires to play their natural role are cleared of excessive flammable debris like fallen trees, pine needles, and leaves. The timing of the intentional burning is also closely monitored to make sure the weather conditions are right.

SMOKEY BEAR TURNS 80
A carving of Smokey Bear at the Smokey bear Museum in Lincoln NF, New Mexico.

“But doesn’t Smokey want us to put out wildfires? He says all the time “Only You.” Well, that’s kind of right. Smokey does want you to prevent wildfires, but he’s talking about the fires humans start accidentally or through irresponsible behavior. Simply put, people start well over 85-percent of all destructive and deadly wildland fires! With numbers like that, there’s no way nature can do its thing, or the Forest Service can get to the forest areas that need to be thinned for a prescribed fire.

“With Smokey turning 80 this year, his message, even after all these years, isn’t antiquated or a relic of the past—it is a timeless reminder that, yes, indeed, the power to help protect our communities, forests, and grasslands from human-caused wildfire resides with “Only You.””

Winter (and early spring) is the prime season for prescribed burns, but in the following months of 2024 and beyond, we need to be mindful of Smokey’s message as we wheel our OHVs in our National Forests and enjoy all they have to offer. Make sure your machine has a working spark arrestor, that you carry at least one fire extinguisher, and that any campfires are completely cold and drowned (we have to obtain fire permits in the Sequoia NF). Keep our forests green and our watersheds clean, and we’ll see you on the trail!

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