Smokey The Bear: Racial Profiler, Beer Snob or Innocent Bystander?

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First off, let me disclose a bias: I like Smokey the Bear. When I was a kid, I thought he was a real bear, because some California television station showed a partially charred bear cub who had survived a forest fire. I always thought he did good work. He prevented forest fires. (This video, for instance, is pretty priceless.)

But his employers, The U.S. Forest Service, are not doing ‘ol Smokey any favors. In late August, service managers in Colorado issued a warning to campers about the danger of people in the forest who travel with “tortilla packaging, beer cans, Spam, Tuna, Tecate beer cans.” Spanish speakers also raised red flags, according to the warning, as did Spanish-language music. No joke. This actually happened. A couple days later, for obvious reasons, the Forest Service retracted the warning.

At the time, the Forest Service justified the concern over Tecate drinkers because of an increase in Spanish-speaking drug traffickers in Colorado’s national forests. But I suspect deeper gastronomical biases at play. Do Hispanic drug traffickers really drink Tecate? Not Dos Equis, or Pacifico, or Negro Modelo? What about Budweiser? And Spam? That’s the thing that tips off the cops to a pot grower? He eats Spam?

I just hope that Smokey wasn’t involved in the decision to issue these guidelines, and that he is hard at work trying to clean up the mess they created. The early signs are good. Hank Kashdan, a spokesman for the Forest Service, has apologized.

It is inexcusable, and we regret that this insensitivity distracted attention from the real problem of illegal marijuana cultivation on federal land and the threats to human safety and environmental degradation it poses.