Smokey Bear

The History and Career of Smokey the Bear

Smokey the Bear Sign
(Chuck Grimmett/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Smokey Bear came to us by necessity. At the beginning of World War II, Americans feared that an enemy attack or sabotage could destroy our forest resources at a time when wood products were greatly needed. In the spring of 1942, a Japanese submarine fired shells onto an oil field in Southern California near Los Padres National Forest. Government officials were relieved that the shelling did not start a forest fire but were determined to provide protection.

The USDA Forest Service organized the Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention (CFFP) Program in 1942. It encouraged citizens nationwide to make a personal effort to prevent forest fires. It was a mobilized civilian effort in support of the war effort to protect valuable trees. Timber was a primary commodity for battleships, gunstocks, and packing crates for military transport.

Character Development

Walt Disney's "Bambi" character was very popular and was used on an initial anti-fire poster. The success of this poster demonstrated that an animal of the forest was the best messenger to promote the prevention of accidental forest fires. On August 2, 1944, the Forest Service and the War Advertising Council introduced a bear as their campaign symbol.​

Albert Staehle, noted illustrator of animals, worked with this description to paint the forest fire prevention bear. His art appeared in the 1945 campaign, and the advertising symbol was given the name "Smokey Bear." The bear was named "Smokey" after "Smokey" Joe Martin, who was Assistant Chief of the New York City Fire Department from 1919 to 1930.

Rudy Wendelin, an artist for the Forest Service, began producing a tremendous quantity of Smokey Bear art in various media for special events, publications, and licensed products to promote the fire prevention symbol. Long after retiring, he created the art for the Smokey Bear's 40th anniversary commemorative U.S. Postage stamp.

Many within the Forest Service still acknowledge Wendelin as being the true "Smokey Bear artist."

The Ad Campaign

After World War II, the War Advertising Council changed its name to The Advertising Council. In the years that followed, the focus of Smokey's campaign broadened to appeal to children as well as adults. But it was not until the 1965 campaign and the work of Smokey artist Chuck Kuderna that Smokey's image evolved into the one we know today.

The Smokey Bear concept has matured into a cottage industry of collectibles and educational material on fire prevention. One of the most popular Smokey products is a set of posters known as his educational poster collection.

The Real Smokey Bear

Smokey Bear's living history began early in 1950 when a burned cub survived a fire in the Lincoln National Forest near Capitan, New Mexico. Because this bear survived a terrible forest fire and won the love and imagination of the American public, many people mistakenly believe the cub was the original Smokey Bear but, in reality, he did not come along until the advertising symbol was almost six years old.

After being nursed back to health, Smokey came to live at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.

as a living counterpart to the CFFP Program's fire prevention symbol.

Over the years, thousands of people from around the world came to see Smokey Bear at the National Zoo. A mate, Goldie, was introduced with the hope a young Smokey would continue the tradition of the famous living symbol. These efforts failed and an adopted son was sent to the zoo so the aged bear could retire on May 2, 1975. After many years of popularity, the original Smokey died in 1976. His remains were returned to Capitan and rest beneath a stone marker in Smokey Bear Historical State Park. For more than 15 years, the adopted Smokey carried on as the living symbol, but in 1990, when the second Smokey Bear died, the living symbol was laid to rest.

Smokey's Detractors

Smokey Bear's task is becoming increasingly difficult.

In years past, it was a challenge for his message to reach traditional visitors to the forest.

Now we are faced with getting his wildfire prevention message to an increasing number of people who live in and around these areas.

But Smokey the Bear may have done too good a job. There are some who suggest that we have eliminated fire to the point that it is hurting not only forest management but is building fuels for future fire disaster.

They don't want Smokey's message out anymore.

Charles Little, in an editorial called "Smokey's Revenge," states that "in many circles the bear is a pariah. Even at the National Zoo in Washington DC, which tends to be inclusive, the popular Smokey Bear exhibit was quietly dismantled in 1991 - after having featured since 1950 a bear going by this name (involving two separate animals). The point is, Smokey's ecological correctness quotient is low, as an increasing number of forest ecologists have been pointing out in recent years. We anthropomorphize at our peril."

Another good essay was written by Jim Carrier for High Country News. It gives a humorous but somewhat cynical view of Smokey. He does not sugar-coat and offers a very entertaining piece called "An Agency Icon at 50". This is a must read!

Adapted from USDA Forest Service Publication FS-551

The Real Smokey Bear

Smokey Bear's living history began early in 1950, when a burned cub survived a fire in the Lincoln National Forest near Capitan, New Mexico. Because this bear survived a terrible forest fire and won the love and imagination of the American public, many people mistakenly believe the cub was the original Smokey Bear, but in reality he did not come along until the advertising symbol was almost six years old.

After being nursed back to health, Smokey came to live at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., as a living counterpart to the CFFP Program's fire prevention symbol.

Over the years, thousands of people from around the world came to see Smokey Bear at the National Zoo. A mate, Goldie, was introduced with the hope a young Smokey would continue the tradition of the famous living symbol. These efforts failed and an adopted son was sent to the zoo so the aged bear could retire on May 2, 1975. After many years of popularity, the original Smokey died in 1976. His remains were returned to Capitan and rest beneath a stone marker in Smokey Bear Historical State Park. For more than 15 years, the adopted Smokey carried on as the living symbol, but in 1990, when the second Smokey Bear died, the living symbol was laid to rest.

Smokey's Detractors

Smokey Bear's task is becoming increasingly difficult. In years past, it was a challenge for his message to reach traditional visitors to the forest.

Now we are faced with getting his wildfire prevention message to an increasing number of people who live in and around these areas.

But Smokey the Bear may have done too good a job. There are some who suggest that we have eliminated fire to the point that it is hurting not only forest management but is building fuels for future fire disaster.

They don't want Smokey's message out anymore.

Charles Little, in an editorial called "Smokey's Revenge", states that "in many circles the bear is a pariah. Even at the National Zoo in Washington DC, which tends to be inclusive, the popular Smokey Bear exhibit was quietly dismantled in 1991 - after having featured since 1950 a bear going by this name (involving two separate animals). The point is, Smokey's ecological correctness quotient is low, as an increasing number of forest ecologists have been pointing out in recent years. We anthropomorphize at our peril."

Another good essay was written by Jim Carrier for High Country News. It gives a humorous but somewhat cynical view of Smokey. He does not sugar-coat and offers a very entertaining piece called "An Agency Icon at 50". This is a must read!

Adapted from USDA Forest Service Publication FS-551