Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
Smokey Bear became the face of the U.S. Forest Service’s campaign about fire prevention in 1944.
In 1950, an injured bear cub from Capitan became the living symbol of Smokey Bear and spent his life promoting fire prevention from the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.
Seventy-five years later, the Forest Service is celebrating the birth of the campaign – and it’s going to be streamed live from Smokey’s birthplace in New Mexico at 11 a.m. Thursday at SmokeyBearLive.org. New Mexico PBS contributor Matt Grubs will host the event.
To this day, the Forest Service uses the bear’s likeness in its campaigns, and it remains a cherished national icon.
The 1944 campaign was part of the war effort to protect forested land from being burned by unwanted human-caused wildfires.
On May 9, 1950, after a devastating fire in the Capitan Mountains, a badly burned cub was rescued and nursed back to health – to then become the symbol of preventing forest fires.
Upon his death in 1976, Smokey Bear was flown home to Capitan and buried in what is now Smokey Bear Historical Park.
With more people playing and living in areas near wildlands, the risks and consequences of wildfires are greater now than ever.
Smokey’s message – that our choices and behavior can impact lives and the environment – resonates to this day.
“Smokey’s message is relevant to everyone, everywhere,” said Amtchat M. Edwards, Forest Service education specialist. ” ‘Remember … Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires.’ It’s a simple message.”
Edwards’ job consists of education outreach for the Forest Service.
The live stream will be a distance learning adventure, where viewers can learn how natural resource managers and communication specialists have worked together to promote Smokey’s message to significantly reduce the number of wildfires, and protect lives and property for millions of people.
“The biggest misconception is that all public lands are the same,” Edwards said. “While we protect the lands to benefit people, we all have different missions. We grow the trees that keep the country running. People appreciate the hardwood fuels and we have a sustainable system of growing those things.”
Edwards said the mandate is having a multiple use.
“We’re growing trees that benefit everyone,” he said. “We value our standing trees and we want people to recreate on the lands, whether it’s snowmobiling or hiking … . We want to connect people to the land and teach how to protect the land.”
Edwards said returning to Capitan will be a treat for viewers.
“There are people still alive who remember Smokey Bear,” he said. “I got to meet a lady in New Mexico who was upstaged by Smokey Bear as a child and she may still have a rivalry with him. It’s a wonderful story.”
Edwards said at least three generations of Americans have learned Smokey Bear’s message.
“There’s a sense of pride and empowerment that Smokey is trying to put the power in people’s hands,” he said. “Smokey has this empowerment and no one is the victim. He helps the community understand that we can protect our home. That message reaches everybody.”