Should Smokey hang up his hat? Beloved bear's message sometimes off the mark

Smokey Bear as a cub. Courtesy USFS.

There aren't that many senior citizens who are able to extinguish a full complement of birthday candles, but you'd imagine that Smokey Bear would top the list. The Forest Service's spokesmammal turned 65 in July, sparking a debate over whether his message of suppression is still the right one.

When Boston's public radio affiliate, WBUR, decided to cover the story on Robin Young's show "Here and Now," it knew who to call: John McCarthy, The Wilderness Society's Idaho forest campaign director.

"Smokey's done a lot of great work over the years, but only part of his message really works," McCarthy said. "That's that 'Only you can prevent campfires from running loose.' You can't prevent fires, nor should you want to prevent fires."

McCarthy went on to tell listeners of the national program that Smokey Bear's message, with its implications that all forest fires are dangerous, is at odds with the fact that some forest fires occur naturally and do good things for forests and communities. (Smokey may not remember but even he has referred to some fires as "nature's housekeeper").

After the show, McCarthy expanded on his thoughts by explaining that the fires that don't threaten people or property are beneficial because they:

  • clear out overgrowth that can cause catastrophic fires later.
  • restore forest health by reintroducing organic matter from dead trees to the soil, providing it with the nutrients it needs to stay productive and fertile.
  • save taxpayer dollars: It's far less expensive to let a fire that doesn't threaten people or property to run its course than it is to extinguish it.

This is just the latest example of how The Wilderness Society and its team of expert analysts and scientists are improving the public's understanding of wildfire's natural role in the environment. Reporters, government officials and community groups often turn to The Wilderness Society for its insight.

Hear the rest of the story on WBUR's website.

photo: Smokey Bear as a cub. Courtesy USFS.

Comments