How have these iconic symbols of the US Forest Service's commitment to the nation's environmental health and safety offended the GOP? It's simple. These cuddly mascots--and similar federal programs devoted to boosting Americans' environmental literacy--cost money. Real money. A princely sum. $5 million a year.
That's chump change in an era in which the federal budget deficit tops $1.1 trillion. A veritable drop in a very, very large bucket. Still, congressional budget-slashers have convinced themselves--if no one else--that going after Smokey and Woodsy makes sense.
Listen to a spokesman for Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-TN), who recently replaced Rep. Eric Cantor as head of the YouCut website--a gimmick that Cantor came up with in 2010 as a way to attack what he deemed government waste. "The congressman feels that the 'environmental literacy' concept is one that is being duplicated by several agencies, and while these efforts may be of some value," said Robert Jameson, "it is important to identify duplicative spending that could be reduced at a time when our federal government needs to get its fiscal house in order."
It would be easy to dismiss this logic, knowing that it comes from a congressional representative who, on his website, describes his decision to run for office in these terms: Prior to the 2010, his biography declares, the then-practicing medical doctor "noticed that conversations [in his office] were changing from talk about hunting, fishing and grandchildren to politics and anger over a government that was firmly on the path towards Socialism." Apparently, knocking off Smokey Bear and Woodsy Owl would be a blow for the democratic way.
Make that the Republican way. Because what DesJarlais and YouCut really object to is not the pittance spent on promoting fire safety; not the paltry amount alerting Americans to the dangers of air and water pollution. No, their focus is on what they darkly hint is the dangerous political subtext of the environmental education these funds underwrite: "While students may benefit from some of the outdoors activities these programs provide, using taxpayer dollars to generate issue-oriented advocacy among school children and college students is inappropriate."
Naturally, they offer no examples of the "issue-oriented advocacy" that seems to trouble them so. Perhaps Smokey's urging to be careful with matches in fire-prone landscapes, a warning he has issued since the mid-1940s, is now a no-no? Is Woodsy, who recently celebrated his 40th birthday, a Fifth Columnist by arguing against litter or encouraging greater land stewardship? Are these furry creatures, by teaching our children to better care for the earth, actually subverting the Republic?
Or is what's at stake the GOP's own issue-oriented advocacy? After all, there are no neutral arguments in politics--to oppose something like environmental education is to propose that Americans should be uneducated about the environmental dilemmas that confront us. To slash the budgets of conservation programs like Smokey or Woodsy, or regulatory agencies such as the Forest Service or EPA, is a politically calculated maneuver. If you don't want the public to know about contaminated waters or smog-filled skies, and the sources of such pollution that robs us of our health, then silence those who might communicate these concerns to us.
Among those who will be most affected by the proposed cuts are our youth. Notes Max Greenberg of the National Wildlife Federation: "The U.S. Forest Service's conservation education programs include efforts to get kids outdoors, healthy and connecting with the natural world. Do we really want to say farewell to Smokey Bear at a time in our nation's history where kids spend less time outdoors than any generation in human history?"
He's launched (yes) an issues-oriented campaign to fend off the Republicans' issues-oriented campaign that right-wingers like DesJarlais kicked off to hush those green rabble-rousers, Smokey and Woodsy.
As a portent of the brawl's outcome, look no farther than Smokey Bear Road in the Tejon Pass. Dedicated in May 1994 in celebration of Smokey's 50th birthday, and located in the Angeles National Forest, the road runs but one-tenth of a mile. It effectively goes nowhere.
That's exactly the fate that should befall Rep. DesJarlais' cost-cutting proposal to eliminate the most popular environmental-education programs in country.
Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, and editor of the just-published "Cities and Nature in the American West." He comments every Wednesday at 2 p.m. on environmental issues. Read all his posts here.