Smokey Bear - Forest History Society (2024)

Smokey Bear - Forest History Society (1)

Smokey Bear's appearance has changed over time, and has continue to change since this compilation was created in 1992. (FHS Archives)

The Smokey Bear Wildfire Prevention campaign is the longest-running public service campaign in U.S. history. Since 1944, the iconic symbol has taught millions that they can prevent wildfires. The character was authorized on August 9, 1944, a date now celebrated as Smokey’s “birthday.” Artist Albert Staehle revealed Smokey Bear on October 10 of that year, complete with his trademark campaign hat and jeans. Three years later, Smokey’s slogan—“Remember ... only YOU can prevent forest fires”—made its debut. It proved so effective that within a few decades, just the image of Smokey’s face with the words “Remember” or “Only you” conveyed the message. After more than half a century of warning about the danger of forest fires, in 2001, to reflect the reality that some fire was ecologically beneficial, Smokey’s message was changed to “Only you can prevent wildfires.”

Smokey's origins date to World War II. Wartime demands limited the number of firefighters, leaving communities to deal with wildfires as best they could. Prevention became crucial. To help with this, the U.S. Forest Service organized the Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention (CFFP) program with the National Association of State Foresters and the War Advertising Council (which became the Advertising Council after the war ended). The program’s purpose: to inform the public about how forest fires could undermine the war effort and destroy much-needed lumber. To reach a younger audience, the CFFP chose a bear as its messenger. Its creators were inspired by a heroic New York City fireman named Joseph “Smokey Joe” Martin.

Over the decades, several artists have drawn Smokey. Albert Staehle is credited with drawing the first Smokey image, which looks more realistic than those that followed. Rudolph Wendelin served as Smokey Bear’s official artist from 1946 until his retirement in 1973. He made him look more human and added Smokey’s name to his hat and belt buckle. He also mentored several other artists, ensuring that Smokey would have a consistent look.

Smokey's popularity skyrocketed in the 1950s for three main reasons. Smokey appeared in innumerable children’s books and coloring books published to convey his message. In 1952, children could write Smokey Bear to receive a Junior Ranger kit, complete with a badge shaped like the Forest Service shield but with Smokey’s face embossed on it. During the first three years of the program, 500,000 children became Junior Rangers. Over the next decade, he got his own television special, an animated Saturday morning cartoon series, and a balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. Today, Smokey's message is disseminated to young adults through several social media platforms, including Facebook and Snapchat. Messaging is provided in both English and Spanish.

In 1952, singer Eddy Arnold recorded the song “Smokey the Bear.” The song created confusion about his official name: songwriters Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins had added “the” only to keep the song’s rhythm. The same year the song was recorded, increasing commercial interest prompted Congress to remove Smokey’s image from the public domain and require a license to create Smokey products. Fees and royalties collected go into an account for fire prevention education.

In the spring of 1950, a bear cub was rescued from a fire in the Capitan Mountains of New Mexico, treated for his burns, and then transported to Washington, DC, to serve as the living symbol of Smokey Bear at the National Zoo. This bear received so much mail that the U.S. Post Office gave Smokey his own zip code—20252. Upon his death in 1976, he was buried at the Smokey Bear Historical Park in Capitan, New Mexico.

(This information has been adapted from James G. Lewis's article "Smokey Bear: From Idea to Icon," published in Forest History Today in 2018. )

Below are the different materials found in the FHS archival collections, publications, YouTube channel, and blog.

Archival Collections
  • Betty Conrad Hite Papers. Conrad Hite worked on both the Smokey and Woodsy Owl campaigns:
    Betty Conrad Hite papers
  • James C. Sorenson Papers. While a U.S. Forest Service employee, Sorenson worked for the Cooperative Forest Fire Program on various Smokey Bear campaigns in Washington, DC, during the 1970s:
    James C. Sorenson papers
  • Rudolph Wendelin Papers. Wendelin worked as the primary Smokey artist from 1946 to 1973:
    Rudolph Wendelin Papers
Photo Collections
  • Gallery of all Smokey Bear photos in the FHS archives: Smokey photos
  • Photos of the rescued cub named "Smokey": The "Real" Smokey Bear
  • Harald Fuller-Bennett and Iris Velez, "Woodsy Owl at 40,"Forest History Today (2012). [PDF] How the Smokey Bear campaign led to the creation of the anti-pollution character Woodsy Owl.
  • James G. Lewis, “Smokey Bear: From Idea to Icon,”Forest History Today (2018). [PDF] A brief history of Smokey Bear through 2019.
  • James G. Lewis, "Smokey, Walk Away from the Walk of Fame!" [BLOG] Some reflections on the effectiveness of the Smokey campaign in advertising circles.
  • Jeffrey K. Stine and Ann M. Seeger, "The Material Culture of Environmentalism: Looking for Trees in the Smithsonian's Pinback Button Collection,"Forest History Today [PDF]. Page 5 has buttons showing how Smokey has been used as a stand-in for the Forest Service.
  • U.S. Forest Service: "Remember — Only You...": 1944-1984 – Forty Years of Preventing Forest Fires –Smokey's 40th Birthday [PDF]. A booklet illustrated with fire prevention posters from 1942 to 1984.
U.S. Forest Service History Reference Collection
FHS's YouTube Channel
Smokey Bear - Forest History Society (2024)


Why is Smokey the Bear controversial? ›

For much of the last century, Smokey was the pitchman for the federal government's aggressive wildfire suppression policy. That tactic, some scientists believe, may have contributed along with climate change to making American forests vulnerable long-term to combustion. They call it “the Smokey Bear effect.”

What is the history of the Smokey the Bear? ›

Smokey Bear was brought by the U.S. Forest Service from New Mexico in June of 1950 after being burned as a cub from a forest fire that swept through a portion of the Lincoln National Forest. Smokey Bear served as a living symbol of the Smokey Bear forest fire prevention program.

Where was the real Smokey the Bear rescued? ›

The living symbol of Smokey Bear was a five-pound, three-month old American black bear cub who was found in the spring of 1950 after the Capitan Gap fire, a wildfire that burned in the Capitan Mountains of New Mexico. Smokey had climbed a tree to escape the blaze, but his paws and hind legs had been burned.

Why did they get rid of Smokey the Bear? ›

After a long and successful career, Smokey Bear is retiring in an effort to change the way people think about fire. Stefan Hood of the BC Wildfire Service says they are trying to shift people's focus away from how to suppress fire toward how to live with it.

Why don't people like Smokey the Bear? ›

The iconic Smokey Bear became the mascot of movement, and “Only you can prevent forest fires” became his call to arms. But many scientists and wildlife experts decry the friendly-looking character and the policies he represents, saying fire suppression can be harmful to ecosystems.

Why did they change the name from Smokey the Bear to Smokey Bear? ›

In order to maintain the correct rhythm, the writers added a "the" between "Smokey" and "Bear." As testament to the song's popularity, Smokey Bear became known as "Smokey The Bear" to many adoring fans, but in actuality his name never changed, and he is still known correctly as Smokey Bear.

What is a fun fact about Smokey the Bear? ›

Smokey has black bear relatives who weigh as much as 800 pounds. Some of his grizzly bear cousins weigh almost a ton! WEIGHT AT BIRTH: About 1-1/2 pounds. In other words, he weighed about as much as a big loaf of bread.

How old was the real Smokey the Bear when he died? ›

1976. NOV. 9 Smokey dies at age 26. His remains are flown back to near where he was found in New Mexico.

Where is the Smokey Bear buried? ›

He remained at the zoo until his death in 1976, when he was returned to his home to be buried at the Smokey Bear Historical Park in Capitan, New Mexico, where he continues to be a wildfire prevention legend.

What is Smokey Bear famous for saying? ›

Smokey's original catchphrase was "Smokey Says – Care Will Prevent 9 out of 10 Forest Fires." In 1947, it became "Remember... Only YOU Can Prevent Forest Fires." In 2001, it was again updated to its current version of "Only You Can Prevent Wildfires" in response to a massive outbreak of wildfires in natural areas other ...

What happened to Smokey the Bear mascot? ›

Upon the death of the original bear on November 9, 1976, his remains were returned by the government to Capitan, New Mexico, and buried at Smokey Bear Historical Park, operated by the New Mexico State Forestry Division. The facility is now a wildfire and Smokey interpretive center.

What state was the real Smokey Bear found with burned paws in 1950? ›

Many know Smokey's message: “Only YOU can prevent wildfires,” but fewer people may know that Smokey was a real American black bear rescued, in the spring of 1950, from a raging wildfire in New Mexico.

What is the story behind the Smokey the Bear? ›

According to the U.S. Forest Service website on Smokey, the original Smokey Bear was a fictional bear dreamed up as a symbol in 1944 for the Forest Service's campaign on forest fire prevention. However, in 1950, his name was bestowed on a bear cub who was rescued from a forest fire in New Mexico.

Does Smokey Bear have a wife? ›

Smokey Bear and his wife "Goldie" who arrived at the National Zoo in 1962. They adopted a son in 1971.

What is the Smokey Bear issue? ›

For much of the last century, Smokey was the pitchman for the federal government's aggressive wildfire suppression policy. Some scientists believe that tactic, along with climate change, may have contributed to making American forests vulnerable to combustion over the long term.

What does Smokey the Bear symbolize? ›

Smokey Bear was born on August 9, 1944, when the USDA Forest Service and the Ad Council agreed that a fictional bear named Smokey would be their symbol for forest fire prevention.

What is the Smokey the Bear effect? ›

Some scientists now believe that the simple idea that fire is bad has made some forests more susceptible to flame—a phenomenon that they call the “Smokey Bear effect.” Areas where fires have been prevented for decades have simply been storing “fuel,” like underbrush growth and dead standing trees.

What was Smokey the Bear's original message? ›

Smokey's original catchphrase was "Smokey Says – Care Will Prevent 9 out of 10 Forest Fires." In 1947, it became "Remember... Only YOU Can Prevent Forest Fires." In 2001, it was again updated to its current version of "Only You Can Prevent Wildfires" in response to a massive outbreak of wildfires in natural areas other ...

What gender is Smokey the Bear? ›

Smokey Bear
LifeSpring 1950 Capitan, New Mexico (living mascot) November 11, 1976 Washington, District of Columbia
In-universe information
SpeciesAmerican black bear
4 more rows


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