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I first noticed the billboard on a rainy Friday night as I was driving south on Elston from Cortland. I had to make a U-turn to double-check what I thought I'd seen. The billboard had a picture of Smokey the Bear standing in front of hills and trees with the caption, "Most causes want your checkbook: He wants your matchbook." Smokey stood with his left paw on his hip, his right foot propped on a shovel and his other front paw on its handle. This was nothing out of the ordinary. What made me turn the car around was Smokey's body. I swear this wasn't my imagination: Smokey looked hot. His stomach muscles rippled. His pectoral muscles and biceps bulged in a manly way--and, frankly, so did the crotch of his jeans.

Since I couldn't be completely certain Smokey hadn't always looked like this and I just had never been in the right mood to observe his masculine attributes before, I made a point of driving past the billboard later with friends. Catherine agreed that Smokey was stacked. "If the Forest Service put a fainting woman in his arms he could give Fabio a run for his money," she said. Joe suggested that the new butch Smokey could do quite well finding dates at leather bars.

What clinched it was seeing an old Smokey at the Iroquois County Conservation Area near Watseka, Illinois, a couple weeks later. Sure enough, the older Smokey was a rounder, burlier fellow. He was still humanoid in jeans and a hat, but his naked upper body wasn't the gorilla chest of the new Smokey on urban billboards.

Smokey the Bear is an odd symbol to find in the middle of Chicago in any case. (For the record, the U.S. Forest Service says his name is just "Smokey Bear," but that isn't what everybody says, and anyway it blows my favorite riddle from when I was nine: "What's Smokey the Bear's middle name?" the answer being "the.") Forest-fire prevention seems the least of concerns on Elston's industrial corridor or in the depressed neighborhood on South Ashland where another billboard stands. While it's possible the people who see these signs may travel to a forest this summer--the rationale the Forest Service uses for putting them there--you have to wonder about the effectiveness of an ad campaign designed to convince people to behave better that's launched so far from the place where it's needed. After all, Disney doesn't put up billboards in Chicago telling people not to cut in line at rides at Disney World.

Chicago is also a strange choice for Smokey ads since the natural ecosystems in this region require fire for survival. A long history of fire prevention here has led to the demise of many of our native plants and animals.

The appearance of these strange billboards on city streets doesn't inspire in me an aching desire to prevent forest fires, but it does give me a sense of the tough balancing act the Forest Service must perform today. Smokey represents an old school of forestry that, while still strong within the Forest Service, is fast falling out of step with the times. When the ad agency Foote, Cone & Belding created Smokey the Bear in 1944 he served essentially as a scarecrow protecting a crop. Trees were regarded as a horticultural commodity to be planted, grown, harvested, and used just as corn or cotton are. (The clearest indication of this attitude toward forests can be seen in the Forest Service's residence within the Department of Agriculture rather than the Department of Interior.) Smokey the Bear was invented as a way to protect not a natural resource, but an economic one: Trees are money. Forests are repositories for trees. Therefore you would no more burn a forest than you would burn oil reserves.

Granted, many foresters who shaped the Forest Service loved the woods for themselves and genuinely believed fires harmed everything in a forest. But this sentimental view was not the organizing principle of the agency. If it had been, it might not have taken so long to figure out that if a fire wasn't jeopardizing human life or habitation it should be allowed to burn.

Because of Smokey, four generations of schoolchildren have grown up with the message that they should be careful with matches and not start forest fires. Fine. But they have also learned that forest fires are terrible things for the living things in forests, which isn't necessarily true.

Forest fires are disasters only if your goal in protecting a 30,000-acre spread of wooded land, grassy meadows, marshy areas, and dry rock outcroppings--a typical conglomeration in a national forest--is to protect just the trees that may someday be cut for lumber. If, however, your goal for the 30,000 acres is to maintain the ecological integrity of the landscape and ensure the health of all the birds, mammals, invertebrates, microorganisms, flowers, shrubs, and grasses that live there, an occasional fire is critical to meeting your goal. This dichotomy of purposes creates a fierce tension within the Forest Service as well as between the timber industry and the people interested in ecological and recreational uses of national forests.

Fires are part of nature, just like floods. And as inconvenient, sometimes as devastating, as both may be, halting them creates its own form of havoc. In the Yellowstone area 50 years of fire suppression resulted in an abnormally large buildup of combustible fuel, which allowed enormous fires to sweep the region five years ago. Letting some fires burn during that half century would have greatly decreased the fuel load and therefore the severity of the recent fires.

There's no point in being too harsh about past actions, as no one knew the important role fire plays until fairly recently. And the federal government has made some cautious moves toward improving its fire policies. In select places it allows natural fires to burn within certain parameters, taking into account the ecosystem itself, the public's perception, and most of all safety. In areas where fire is crucial to the survival of an ecosystem, burns are now deliberately set and controlled.

As the Forest Service tries to bring its burning policy up to date, the success of Smokey has become its worst enemy. Forest fires are still viewed as ecological tragedies by much of the American public, and the outcry against any "let it burn" policy is strong.

The Chicagoans trying to restore local natural areas openly bemoan the Smokey influence. One prairie volunteer who worked at a nature center, well aware that the suppression of fire is contrary to what's natural in this region, did her part to counter the Smokey message by cutting his picture and message off Forest Service posters before handing them out to schoolchildren. While this doesn't mean that it's a good idea to encourage or even allow average citizens to go out and start fires willy-nilly, it's also not wise to tell them fires are bad for nature when they're not.

I called the U.S. Forest Service's office of Smokey Bear services to find out what they were trying to achieve with Smokey's new strongman look. Smokey is having his 50th birthday in August, and the office is staffed up for the celebration, so I got someone on the phone whose whole job is to handle media for Smokey the Bear. (A nice guy, Robert Conrad, said he didn't care if I slipped "the" into Smokey's name. He also sent me a press packet that included a Smokey "Prevent Forest Fires" key ring and luggage tag, camera-ready logos, and a magazine with photos of a topiary Smokey cut into someone's shrub.)

When I brought up Smokey's new look, without specifying how I thought it had changed, he claimed it hadn't. He said Smokey might look different from time to time depending on the artist who drew him. But I'm not the only one noticing Smokey's new bod, because Conrad offered without any prompting that some people were saying that Smokey now looked like a macho bear because the artist gave him "pecs and whatever."

That a new look for the Forest Service's most important icon was simply slipped in by a new artist is unlikely. Particularly since I know from other sources that focus groups were conducted recently with Chicago children to evaluate the image of Woodsy Owl, a less famous Forest Service symbol. (Someone who has seen potential new Woodsy images says it may move in a similarly muscled direction. I can't wait to see pecs on an owl.)

If Woodsy had his own focus groups, you can bet your best hiking boots that Smokey did too. I suppose the market researchers for Smokey reported that kids today respond best to beefy men telling them what to do. But maybe children say they like that because that's what they're given. I think America's forests would have been better served if the ad agency had been instructed to come up with a sensitive new-age kind of Smokey who admits he was wrong before and says that sometimes it's OK for forests to burn.

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