In August of 1944, the U.S. Forest Service worked with the Ad Council to launch their new mascot. A fictional bear that would stand as a symbol to remind people that carelessness can lead to wildfires. While the Smokey Bear image immediately struck a chord with campers and kids, it wasn’t until the spring of 1950 that his message that “Only YOU Can Prevent Forest Fires!” would spread like wildfire, so to speak.
That spring, a wildfire ravaged the forests around the Captain Mountains in New Mexico. While putting out the blaze, firefighters found and rescued a small bear cub who had been badly burned climbing up a tree to escape the flames and rode out the rest of the fire there. The firefighters took to calling him Smokey in recognition of his bravery, and while the cub received treatment in Santa Fe, the story of his courage spread from the local news, to national news, and all the way to the chief of the Forest Service. The Forest Service decided to adopt the cub as the living mascot for Smokey Bear, and built him a home at the National Zoo in D.C.
While the message of Smokey Bear has been changed slightly over the years, replacing the term “forest fires” with “wildfires” to differentiate between human caused fires and naturally occurring fires which are sometimes necessary for forest growth and soil chemistry, the facts remain the same. Nine out of ten wildfires are still caused by people’s carelessness, meaning that most wildfires are totally preventable. And while that fact hasn’t changed, the chances of wildfires continue to rise as climate change continues to cause longer and hotter springs and summers. A study into the massive uptick in California wildfires during 2015 showed that they could be attributed to manmade climate change. This pattern creates a vicious cycle, where climate change leads to worse wildfires, which in turn releases more CO2 into the atmosphere, trapping in more heat. Closer to our New York home, a manmade wildfire in Brookhaven on Long Island in 2012 burned down over 1,000 acres of forests, leading to an evacuation of the nearby town and a closure of the Long Island Expressway as around 600 firefighters worked to contain and extinguish the fire.
Smokey Bear has long stood as one of the most successful mascots of awareness and mindfulness. The recognition of his Forest Ranger hat and his motto of “Only YOU Can Prevent Wildfires!” to this day is a testament of that fact. More recently, Smokey has taken on a more radical tone, as he has become a symbol of political resistance for the National Parks Service and National Forest Service. As both groups have been defunded since the new administration took office, both have become figureheads in the conversation around climate change and its denial. Around Inauguration Day, the official National Forests Service, National Parks Service, and specifically an ex-employee still logged in to the Badlands National Park Twitter accounts began to provide information on climate change, environmental protection, and air pollution, against the wishes of the new administration. As the official accounts were handed over to more compliant employees and the politically resistant tweets were deleted, rogue Twitter accounts sprouted up, giving employees of the defunded agencies an outlet to voice their concerns.
As climate change continues to affect us on a global scale, we’re making a point to do what we can to bring a bit more mindfulness to how our actions can affect the environment around us. Today, an act of resistance can be as enjoyable as a visit to your local National Park or Forest. In our opinion the best way to understand how important it is to protect our environment is to take a hike, go for a swim, or go camping, and become familiar with the nature around you. If you stand with us and end up wearing one of these pieces, we hope you’ll help spread Smokey’s message as well.