I think Bil Gilbert did a public service by revealing part of the Smokey Bear problem (Where There's Smokey, There's Fire, June 12). For many years the professional forester-directed U.S. Forest Service has managed our national forests behind the image of Smokey Bear.
What is little known is that the Forest Service can well remain smug about Smokey—protected as it is by Public Law 359, popularly referred to as the Smokey Bear Act. This law provides more protection for Smokey Bear's name, and thus Forest Service policy, than the Constitution provides for the name of an American citizen. This should be indicative of how far overboard Congress has gone in turning over discretionary powers to the U.S. Forest Service.
Your article on Smokey was interesting, but not without error or omissions. While you credit "Southern foresters and timber-company technicians" with beginning the study of what is now known as fire ecology, major credit should go to H. H. Chapman, a Minnesota-bred Yankee and longtime professor of forest management at Yale. He was the first to recommend using fire on two of the principal Southern pine types. Later research, especially by the U.S. Forest Service, refined and modified his methods and—with the experience gained using tire on national forests—provided guides on how to burn. Today some two million acres of forest land in the South, largely in industrial holdings and national forests, are prescribe-burned each year. Back in 1964 the Forest Service prescribe-burned only 317,000 acres in national forests of the South. Nearly all of the burning was done on acreage under stands, not as a way of disposing of slash after logging as your author implied. Admittedly, slash fires apparently predominate in national forests of the West.
In some respects, we could have used your article about 20 to 40 years ago when the pros and cons of prescribed or controlled burning were being fiercely debated in forestry circles. Bill Beaufait's research seems relatively recent, as does the Park Service's interest, when one considers that a U.S. Department of Agriculture bulletin co-authored in 1903 by Henry S. Graves, second chief of the Forest Service and longtime dean of the Yale School of Forestry, stated that in southern New England "...pine seeds do not germinate on a dry matting of needles and leaves. Under these circumstances reproduction is assisted by burning off the surface litter."
In my own experience the first prescribed-burning study, testing different frequencies of fire in southern New Jersey, was started in 1936 by the state and U.S. Forest Service. Prescribed-burning as a tool of forest management received approval for use on state and private lands in that section in 1947.
Ashley Schiff, a political scientist, analyzed the fight within the U.S. Forest Service over using fire as a tool in his book Fire and Water: Scientific Heresy in the Forest Service. This book, dealing largely with the 1920s and '30s, was published in 1962—10 years ago.
SILAS LITTLE, Ph.D.
Bil Gilbert's article on Smokey Bear, to resort to the obvious clich�, misses the forest for the trees. His reportorial slant, while thoroughly researched smacks of opportunism. His conclusion, while nicely presented, comes from a wrong hypothesis.
Smokey is a symbol of forest fire prevention. He has nothing to do with controlled burning; the latter is a scientifically based procedure, the former a conservation-minded viewpoint. And to confuse the two under a partisan attack on Smokey is to invite trouble.
Remove Smokey or weaken his message by messianic articles under the flag of ecology and you reduce the fear of the danger of fire and increase the odds of more fires like the 1970 inferno that ravaged thousands of acres here in Southern California and burned clear to the water in Malibu.
Controlled burning is not a public issue: Smokey is. Let the foresters handle their management and burning policies on the inside. And let Smokey remind us all about handling fires on the outside. That's the better course.
Manhattan Beach, Calif.