Smokey Bear Speaks To a New Generation

The slimmer, multilingual friend of the forests celebrates his 50th birthday with an updated message

HE'S well known. He's effective. And even though he hasn't aged a bit, this year the stalwart bear celebrates his 50th birthday with an updated image and expanded message.

Smokey Bear, armed with his familiar shovel and mounds of market research, is warning new audiences about the danger of forest fires.

As the population becomes more diverse and suburban sprawl creeps closer to wilderness areas, The United States Forest Service is launching an aggressive campaign to target children and minorities, especially the Asians and Hispanics. A slimmer, trimmer bruin spreads his urgent message in several languages.

Elsie Cunningham, Program Manager for the Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention Program, says, ``More first-generation Americans and non-English-speaking people are going into the state and national forests for recreation. We want them to tie Smokey with fire prevention and become aware of fire-safe behavior.''

While Smokey no longer stars in the Saturday morning cartoon series so popular in the 1960s, he is appearing in public service announcements in English, Korean, Vietnamese, Spanish, and Chinese. In one announcement the bear, created during the era of big bands and radio, dons a vest and gold chain and raps with a group of teens.

James Lyons, Assistant Secretary of Agriculture, Natural Resources and the Environment, says, ``The golden anniversary is a golden opportunity for us to spread the gospel according to Smokey.''

Often sporting sunglasses, the guardian of the forest still visits schools and classrooms. But he's also getting out and about, attending local festivals, rodeos, baseball games, and the Special Olympics.

One of his public service announcements was shown on the Jumbotron at this year's Super Bowl, and he'll be on hand for the finals at the World Cup Soccer Championship in Los Angeles. And in a first, he'll travel north to cheer on the mushers in Alaska's annual Iditarod.

Mr. Lyons notes that the Smokey campaign has been one of the longest running and most successful public relations campaigns in the country. In a 1988 market survey contracted by the National Ad Council, 95 percent of adults and 77 percent of children ages five to 13 recognize his timeless message: ``Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires.''

Lyons says, ``People in the corporate world would pay millions to find a symbol that has the kind of visibility and effectiveness Smokey has.''

Before Smokey began sniffing the air for fire, millions of acres were destroyed each year. In 1941, 208,000 forest fires burned 30 million acres, an area the size of New York state, of America's forest and range land. Nine out of ten fires were preventable, caused by people.

Since the bruin in the ranger hat first appeared, accidental wildfires caused by humans have been reduced by half, even though ten times as many people are using our national forests as did in the 1940s. In 1990, 5.4 million acres, an area about the size of Massachusetts, were destroyed by fire.

But the exhibit is more than just a look at Smokey's past. Interactive displays, especially designed for children, explain how trees grow and the role of forests in the ecosystem. Another exhibit shows footage from California's recent fires and explains the science of what fires are good and what fires are bad, as well as nature's fire cycle.

Mary Stimmel, the public affairs director at Fernbank, says, ``We want visitors to understand that the fire prevention program is looking toward the future.''

The exhibit was in Atlanta through March 14. It opens in Dallas, April 1-30; Los Angeles, May 15-June 15; New York, July 1-Aug. 1; Washington, D.C., Aug. 9 through Sept 15 and Chicago, Oct. 24- Jan 4.

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