Conservation · disaster · Information · Paradox · Politics

Smokey Bear Effect: The Paradox of Good Intentions Reaching Bad Results

“The part we haven’t thought of” – Astronaut Michael Collins when asked what the most dangerous part of the Apollo 11 flight was

Late summer and early fall in the United States is always an interesting time.  One of the hallmarks for those west of the Mississippi River is fire season. We all know that fire is a fact of life. The brush fires and forest fires in the west erupt frequently and cause great destruction to the natural habitat while threatening and often destroying human structures and disrupting life, and fires must be stopped.

The wildfires of California, Oregon and Montana these last couple of months are examples of the death and destruction they bring.  The forests and chaparral are laid waste, people are killed and communities are destroyed. We can see that maintaining healthy forests and safe environs requires suppressing fires. Just look at the images.

Or so we thought.

The Role of Fires was Misunderstood and All Fires Viewed as Bad

It turns out that over a century of events has given reasons for pause regarding human influence.  Forest fires are different now – they aren’t just burning the forests but are obliterating them. These fires now, contrary to the role they had in ecosystems in the past, aren’t cleaning up the area.

Forests that had fires roll through every five or ten or twenty years haven’t had the chance to burn.  The forest fires would have the effect of clearing out the underbrush and consuming dead trees and the like.  They could burn through the outer bark of healthy trees, but not enough to kill them.  Fires would take out diseased trees, kill pests like pitch canker and bark beetles.  Some trees actually REQUIRE fires to germinate their seeds.

These regular fires have been demonstrated through dendrochronology, where those studying the tree rings could see with the scars.  But then around 1900 or so, the regular scars stopped.  This came about with the beginning of conservation and the efforts to put out forest fires.  Subsequent to the 1910 Big Blowup – which remains the largest recorded wildfire in US History – the Chief of the US Forest Service announced the policy to suppress all fires by 10 a.m. after report.

Wildfires Became a Moral Problem Through War and After

By the time of World War II, the US government was aggressively fighting wildfires, viewing it as a matter of nationalism.  The loss of valuable timber and the loss of “pristine” wilderness became a moral imperative.  Bambi, released in 1942, proselytized against the horrors of man in the forest, culminating in a vast forest fire. During World War II, the efforts of the US government made fire prevention a matter of national pride.

forest fire war
Fire Prevention a Matter of National Security – and Ethnic Purity

Subsequent to the War, the US took off with its new campaign featuring Smokey Bear, who told everyone “Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires.” Fire Prevention became a moral imperative and Smokey was the spokesperson.

smokey bear

Inherent in Smokey’s message is that wildfires are manmade and not a natural process.  Smokey Bear is as well known to children and adults in the US as Mickey Mouse.  This policy led to further aggressive fire prevention efforts.

By the 1960s, Researchers Identified Problems

By the 1960s, researchers and government officials realized that the answer to the reason why there were no sequoia saplings growing in Sequoia National Park was because there were no fires. Toward the end of the decade, the Forest Service began to treat fire as an important ecological process.

The Forest Service then began processes of making prescribed burns, which was utilized in the 1970s and 1980s.  These prescribed burns, however, did cause their own problems in that they frequently became uncontrolled blazes.  There was just too much fuel.

There is So Much Fuel Now that Forests are Being Destroyed

The presence of a massive amount of underbrush which hasn’t been cleared is causing some fantastic difficulties.  The fires can no longer simply clean out the underbrush and kill off dead and sickened trees.  Instead, these fires are massive blast furnaces laying waste to entire forests and leaving them utterly destroyed.

Prescribed fires are not controllable.  There is no way to send crews out to clear millions of square miles of underbrush – that was fire’s job for the last century.  Despite human civilization and our resources, most of the Sierras, Rockies, etc are remote wilderness where it is logistically too difficult to bring in equipment and to remove the waste in the first place.

Humans Have Moved Into the Forests

Another problem faced with prescribed burns is that people are living in the forests and in the hills.  People would usually prefer the home in the woods over the house in the suburbs.  By definition, civilization expands into wilderness and this is no exception.

When there are more people in these forests there becomes an obvious issue with managing prescribed burns to maintain some safety for the residents, security for the properties, and quality of life regarding smoke and other such things.  This leaves government with the choice of starting a fire that could damage or destroy property – and face the public relations nightmare that comes from it – or leave it to chance to simply fight a fire that occurs naturally before it destroys property.

Unintended Consequences Can Actually Be the Problem Trying to Prevent

The Smokey Bear Effect is representative of a paradox – being so effective at stopping fires that the fires became unstoppable.  If anybody in 1935 would have been told that “your efforts to save the forests will actually kill them” they would have either not taken such a situation seriously or changed course.

As it stands, that was the state of knowledge at the time.  We did not know – and likely would not even countenance – that fire had benefits. Fire was clearly a bad thing, and anyone suggesting that fire was a necessary thing for forest health was so far out of the consensus as to be someone to be ignored.

We should learn from events such as this.  Our desire for a preservation of the status quo WILL lead to problems we haven’t thought of.  When we look to making improvements upon things there WILL be costs.  It takes thinking outside the box and some “what if” questioning to raise concerns.

“What if forest fires are crucial to a healthy forest?” This statement would have been heresy 80 years ago or even 60 years ago.  The short-term benefits were clear but put the cost on the long-term.  By the time we figured it out we are now left with no good options.

Approach good intentions with caution and be cognizant of the possibilities that your efforts to save something can ultimately doom it.


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