Rethinking Smokey Bear

by Stan Buman | August 31, 2008

© Stan BumanGoing against a legend can be an uphill battle. In this case, the legend is the character in one of the most successful propaganda campaigns in our nation’s history.

Prescribed burn © Stan Buman

Conducting a prescribed burn

Everybody knows Smokey Bear’s message, “Only you can prevent forest fires” or the updated message of “Only you can prevent wildfires.” Many people translate this into the message that fire is bad.

So, why would anybody want to contradict a legend? Why do people want to start fires to burn down trees and other woody vegetation? After all, everybody loves a tree, right? We plant them as memorials to loved ones. They are included in landscaping around our homes and businesses. Trees provide shade for needed relief from the hot summer sun. They also support tire swings and tree houses. The list of uses can go on and on.

Again, why would somebody want to get rid of trees, thousands of them? Think grasslands or, more specifically, native prairie. As one remembers vast prairies stretching as far as the eye can see, tree choked hills don’t enter the picture. But, with the removal of the fire from the landscape, trees have entered the picture.

On July 16th, 1804 while traveling up the Missouri River, William Clark (Lewis & Clark expedition) noted the absence of trees when describing this region as, “an extensive prairie on the S.S.. This Prairie I call Ball [bald] pated Prairie from a range of Ball Hills parallel to the river & at from 3 to 6 miles distant from it, and extend as far up and down as I can see.” But today, these vast prairies would be unrecognizable by Clark due to woody vegetation encroachment.

In western Iowa, the Loess Hills is a special landscape consisting of steep terrain paralleling the Missouri River. The magnitude of this formation gives it the distinction of being the largest wind-blown soil formation in North America. Here, an invader, woody vegetation, slowly crept into this ancient prairie and choked out the grasses and forbs. Only the steepness of the Loess landform saved the remaining prairie scattered throughout the hills. These remnants would have succumbed to the plow many years ago if farmers could have traversed the slopes with tillage equipment.

Hamburg, early 1900s

Looking south towards Hamburg – Shimek early 1900s

Hamburg © Stan Buman

Looking south towards Hamburg – Buman 2006

European settlement played a huge role in this slow change. Prior to settlement, grasslands burned frequently due to lightning strikes and fire use by Native Americans. These frequent fires were responsible for keeping most woody vegetation confined to the wetter ravines and the cooler, damper, northeast-facing slopes. Settlers did not understand the role fire played in maintaining grassland plant diversity. Nor did they like the idea of seeing their homes burn down. As a result, fire was viewed as destructive and suppression measures were introduced. The very successful 1940’s era campaign featuring Smokey Bear further enhanced this mind-set.

Unfortunately, the side effect was the slow encroachment of trees out of the ravines and over the ridges. It is a process that takes decades, even generations. In fact, woody vegetation encroachment happens over such a long period of time that people do not notice the year-to-year changes.

Photographer’s Role

This is where photographers can play a role. Photographic images can be used to document slow changes over time. Old photographs help us recall the youthful appearance of our loved ones as well as the landscape. The aging process happens over so many years that we do not notice the day-to-day or even the year-to-year changes.

This point became clear to me in 2003 when I attended a North American Nature Photography Association (NANPA) fall regional meeting in South Dakota. Juli Wilcox ( editor and active NANPA member) had invited Custer, SD photographer Paul Horsted as a guest speaker. Mr. Horsted enthralled me with his discussion of his book project entitled, “Exploring with Custer, The 1874 Black Hills Expedition.” Mr. Horsted, plus others, spent an incredible amount of time relocating and photographing the scenes depicted in images taken in 1874 while Custer was on expedition to the Black Hills.

As an agronomist/conservationist, my attention was focused on the vegetative changes. Over the 125+ year period, the open forest canopies filled in and trees crept across the previously grass-dominated slopes. Mr. Horsted described it this way, “Comparing the 1874 and modern photographs shows, in nearly every case, many more trees are growing now over vast areas of the Black Hills. These trees tend to be smaller and growing closer together, and they are a fire hazard that grows (literally) worse every year.”

The changes in the Loess Hills were similar to those in the Black Hills. The suppression of fire resulted in the encroachment of woody vegetation into the prairie. I felt photographic comparisons depicting the changes could aid in prairie restoration efforts being conducted in the Loess Hills.

The Photographic Project

With encouragement from the Loess Hills Alliance (LHA,, a non-profit organization involved in the protection of the unique landform, I pursued this photographic project. The LHA Stewardship Committee actively encourages woody vegetation removal via mechanical clearing and fire in order to reclaim and enhance prairie remnants. This is accomplished through leadership, prescribed fire training, general education, cost-share assistance, etc.

I am affiliated with the LHA through Agren, Inc., of which I am part owner. Agren is an agricultural and environmental consulting company, which has been actively involved helping the Stewardship Committee achieve their goals.

Since members of the Lewis and Clark expedition did not think to pack a digital camera and document the appearance of the Loess Hills in 1804, I had to settle for images taken a century later. Shortly after meeting Mr. Horsted, several members of the Stewardship Committee showed me images taken between 1903 and 1910. Of note was the depiction of vast grasslands documented by a geologist, Bohumil Shimek (1861 – 1937). A search for more images led me to the University of Iowa, where Mr. Shimek had been a professor of botany. The staff was very helpful in showing me the Shimek collection and creating digital copies of the glass plates for images of interest.

The captions on the images were vague. Relocating the scenes required the assistance of many, including committee members and private landowners. Most distinguishing features had been masked by the encroachment of trees. As people reviewed the photos, they made their best guesses as to the locations.

Reading information received from NANPA, I decided to apply for financial assistance. Working with the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, I submitted a successful proposal for the Philip Hyde grant solicitation, and in 2006 received notice of award. That was a big boost to my project. With a verbal commitment to members of the Stewardship Committee and a written commitment via the Philip Hyde grant, I geared up my efforts to conduct field searches. My appreciation rapidly grew of Mr. Horsted and his companions in re-locating scenes photographed during Custer’s Expedition. This could not have been a simple task.

In the summer of 2006 I made numerous trips to the Hills, searching for the scenes depicted by Mr. Shimek and John B. Morrill, Jr., author of a 1953 thesis pertaining to the Loess Hills with accompanying photographs.

Shimek, early 1900s

North of Hamburg – Shimek early 1900s

North of Hamburg © Stan Buman

North of Hamburg – Buman 2006

Some locations were along a road. But many of the images had been taken from high vantage points, accessible by traversing rough topography on private land. Most landowners were interested in my project and enjoyed seeing old images of their farms. Numerous people were able to point me in the right direction. From there, it was a matter of scrambling up and down hills, looking at the old photographs, trying to find the same vantage point, with views often obstructed by a wall of trees. Occasionally, the hills were just gone. One such hill, or the dirt from the hill, now provides the fill material underneath Interstate 29.

Rethinking Smokey

The photographs have been provided to Stewardship Committee members for use with their educational efforts. In addition, Agren has conducted several campaigns to educate landowners throughout the Hills on the benefits of fire. The paired images serve as a reminder to some and an education to others of the changes over time.

Already, alterations are taking place to restore the prairie in the Loess Hills. Some landowners have either initiated a burn or have contracted with an experienced crew to conduct a prescribed burn. Other landowners have an increased awareness in the need for fire. Still others remain committed to the Smokey Bear message and have no interest in fire.

Pasque flower with ice crystals © Stan Buman

Pasque Flower with ice crystals

Yet efforts to educate and rethink Smokey’s fire prevention legend will continue. Nature photographers everywhere can play an important role in documenting and bringing public awareness to changes in their own locales.

Note: Permission to use historical photographs granted by the University of Iowa, “The Shimek Photographic Collection, Departments of Geoscience and Biological Sciences.”

About the Author

Stan Buman is the owner of Fenceline Photos and part-owner and Vice-President of Agren, Inc., both Iowa-based companies. Stan writes, “There are so many beautiful sites in nature to enjoy and not enough days in my life.”

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