Albion Monitor /News

Dump Smokey The Bear, Say Enviros

by Pratap Chatterjee

Successful campaign has backfired

(IPS) SAN FRANCISCO -- Environmentalists have long campaigned to save the Chinese panda, the European brown bear, and the Canadian spirit bear, but there is one bear that has fallen out of favor: Smokey the Bear.

Smokey the Bear was born 51 years ago as a public relations mascot for the United States Forest Service to educate the public about fire prevention. Today, environmentalists say the campaign has been so successful that it has backfired.

The Forest Service says its campaign, together with modern fire-fighting equipment, has prevented 97 percent of small, natural fires, the kind that devastated up to 22.1 million hectares in 1969, the worst year for fires in recent times.

The problem is that the fires today are larger, although often accidental, causing some 19.4 million hectares to burn so far this year, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. In 1994, some $700 million of property was destroyed and 32 firefighters killed in blazes.

The Forest Service now encourages small, controlled burns to thin out the vegetation

Environmental experts say the prevention of small fires has inhibited the natural thinning of forests. The thicker vegetation burns faster and spreads more quickly, resulting in massive damage.

"It's going to get worse," predicts Leon Neuenschwander, a fire ecologist at the University of Idaho. "It will get worse until wildfires have burned to the point where they are converting much of the forest to shrub lands. So this problem is not going away."

There are other benefits of small fires. Many trees, including Ponderosa pine, depend on such fires for germination of their seeds. Fires also recycle nutrients to the soil in the form of ash and reduce insect infestations and disease. The fresh green growth after fires also supports deer and other animals.

Prevent these fires and other trees like spruce dominate the forests. The spruce is far more susceptible to insects and disease, so the net result is dying forests that are set off by the first lightning strike or forgotten campfire.

In the first week of September alone, some 40 major fires were raging through eight Western states. In Idaho, the Cox's Well fire has already destroyed 386,000 hectares of grasses and sagebrush. The Upper Humboldt Complex fire in Nevada has burned some 370,000 hectares, including wild horse habitats, while the Salt Complex fire at Hells Canyon Recreation area in Oregon has destroyed some 267,000 hectares.

In California, some 221,000 hectares of the Yosemite National Park and the Stanislaus National Forest burned this year in a fire that is only just being brought under control. At one point the fire threatened key areas like the Hetch Hetchy reservoir which supplies drinking water to San Francisco.

The Forest Service decided this year to change its practice of suppressing all fires and to encourage small, controlled burns to thin out the vegetation.

Some 1.9 million hectares have burned in such a manner this year, and the Forest Service plans to increase the area to 13.6 million hectares by 2005.

Alexander Cockburn, columnist for the Nation magazine, says this proves that Smokey was wrong.

"Long before Smokey ever raised his priggish paw, these forests had known a history of burning and intentional manipulation through fire," he wrote recently. "American Indians were expert at it."

Charges that the timber industry is deliberately misleading the public

Other environmentalists are worried that the increase in fires will be used as an excuse for more logging. They point out that less than two years ago, President Bill Clinton signed into effect a law that allowed timber companies to go in and log "dying trees."

In fact, the timber industry is asking for even more permission to step up logging in national forests to remove wood they say is fuelling the flames.

"Our nation's forests are facing an unprecedented crisis and we're doing little or nothing to address the underlying problem, which is the accumulation of dead and dying timber," Henson Moore, President of the American Forest and Paper Association, declared last week.

But Jeff St. Clair, editor of the Wild Forest Review in Portland, Oregon, supports controlled burns and charges that the timber industry is deliberately misleading the public.

"In other worlds, we must destroy the forest in order to save it," he wrote recently in an attempt to point out the absurdity of the timber industry's claims.

Sami Yassa, a scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, says the opposite may be true.

Recent scientific studies show that "the lessons we draw are that most of these fires are the result of mismanagement in the past. They are largely due to timber harvest that has removed the biggest, largest, most fire-resistant trees and left highly flammable slash and dense thickets."

There have also been rumors that some of the fires might have been deliberately started in order to allow increased logging. Federal investigators have been looking into a fire in the Gila national forest in Arizona to see if Forest Service employees are to blame.

Comments? Send a letter to the editor.

Albion Monitor September 15, 1996 (

All Rights Reserved.

Contact for permission to reproduce.

Front Page