ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s attack on the Smokey Bear hot air balloon has a former New Mexico state forester — who is also the balloon’s pilot — fuming.
In opening remarks Thursday for the 113th Congress, McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said the money the U.S. Forest Service has spent to have the Albuquerque-based Smokey Bear balloon appear at balloon festivals is a waste of taxpayer money.
Retired state forester Bill Chapel, who pilots the 93-foot-tall Smokey Bear balloon, said he was “dumbfounded” when McConnell complained about spending taxpayer dollars “on robo-squirrels and dancing robot DJs, or hot-air balloon rides for Smokey the Bear.”
In a speech aimed largely at the need for Congress to cut federal spending, McConnell questioned how, if lawmakers can’t cut things like funds to fly the hot air balloon, “how are we ever going to get at the hard stuff?”
But Chapel said the relatively minuscule $240,000 the Forest Service has contributed to flying the balloon since 2005 is money well spent, because it promotes Smokey Bear’s message of preventing forest fires.
“Fire prevention is near and dear to our hearts here in New Mexico,” Chapel said, not only because Smokey Bear originated here, but because of the state’s history of devastating wildfires.
“Those fires can cost millions of dollars a day to fight, and that doesn’t include the loss of lives, homes and natural resources,” he said. “If you can prevent even one of those fires, it’s money well spent.”
Calls to McConnell’s Washington office for comment were not immediately returned Friday.
The Smokey Bear hot-air balloon is owned by Friends of the Smokey Bear Balloon, a nonprofit organization founded in 1992. The balloon, shaped like Smokey’s head, made its debut at the 1993 Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta and is one of the most recognizable special-shape balloons in the nation, Chapel said.
The organization also owns four smaller, non-flying nylon balloons used for static displays at schools, festivals and other events.
The organization’s 2012 budget was $53,000, he said, about two-thirds of which comes from federal and state agencies interested in promoting fire safety. The remainder comes from Smokey Bear memorabilia sales and private donations.
Since 2005, the U.S. Forest Service has contributed about $30,000 per year to the organization, he said.
McConnell isn’t the only voice on Capitol Hill with Smokey in his sights.
Sen. Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican known for his annual “Waste Book,” which blasts government largesse on programs he considers dubious, thinks the Smokey Bear Balloon is a lot of wasteful hot air.
“While Smokey’s message serves a purpose of reminding citizens of the dangers of wildfires, federally funded appearances at balloon festivals should be a government expenditure that goes up in smoke,” Coburn writes in the 2012 Waste Book. “The money spent by the U.S. Forest Service could be better directed to funding more DC-10 tankers to help fight one of the more than 6,000 wildfires that plagued the United States in 2012.”
A singed black bear cub rescued from the spring 1950 Capitan Gap fire in Lincoln County was the first living symbol of Smokey Bear. The rescued bear was nursed back to health and sent to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., where he lived for 26 years.
When Smokey died on Nov. 9, 1976, his remains were returned to Smokey Bear Historical Park near Capitan for burial.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal