Congress Legalizes Smokey Bear Impersonations

The $2.3 trillion spending bill repeals criminal penalties for using Smokey Bear's likeness without government permission.


The 5,593-page, $2.3 trillion government spending bill passed by Congress yesterday is replete with gems. After all, that's a lot of pages, and a lot of money! There was the $900 billion in coronavirus relief aid—the second-largest stimulus measure in U.S. history. There was the $1 billion for two new Smithsonian museums. There was the $10 million for "gender programs" in Pakistan. There was the creation of a special authority to control doping in horseracing. And finally, at last, there was the long-awaited repeal of criminal penalties for using Smokey Bear's likeness without permission.


According to Section 711 of Title 18 of the U.S. Code, those who leverage Smokey Bear for profit—on a t-shirt, a book, in a live costume setting—currently face six months incarceration for their crime. The iconic character was conceived in the 1940s and has evangelized about the importance of fire safety ever since. "Only YOU Can Prevent Wildfires," he exhorts. Used incorrectly, however, and it's off to prison for you. Who knew Smokey was such a hard-ass?

A deep dive into Smokey's regulations show that he keeps a tight ship. Those interested in using the character for any commercial endeavors must be licensed by the feds, and the purpose must further wildfire prevention. Without that license, Smokey adherents risk fines and prison time. "Report suspected violations directly to the national Program Manager [of the Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention Program], who shall take action necessary, up to and including civil and criminal court actions, to stop the violator," the government instructs.

There's little breathing room in that guidance. "Smokey is not any agency's mascot and shouldn't be treated as such," a brochure reads. "Areas that are especially subject to abuse: t-shirts and jacket art for fire crews, employees, and ranger districts… Smokey Bear's image will not be demeaned or tarnished." Abuse, indeed!

If given the green light for costume usage in the appropriate, government-approved forum, you better believe that Smokey expects only the best. "Do NOT speak during costumed appearances unless equipped with the currently licensed Smokey Bear voice modulator system," the guidance says. Also, do NOT appear without "at least one uniformed escort" who must "guide the Bear at the elbow" and be able to espouse the tenets of wildfire prevention. "A clean, private dressing room is necessary for putting on and taking off the costume," notes the rulebook. A diva if I've ever seen one.

If President Donald Trump signs the omnibus bill, no longer will Smokey be such an exclusive commodity: Prison time would be off the table for those interested in making and selling, say, a shirt with his stern, furry countenance. As former Reason intern Ford Fischer points out, his likeness is currently on a pillow produced in Europe, though Amazon has had to block sales in the United States.

The Smokey debacle may seem trivial. That's because it is. But, in true form, it epitomizes just how mundane and, yes, trivial government waste can be. We have the criminal justice angle! (Prison time for making a Smokey Bear shirt? Really?) We have the licensing angle! (You need a permit to wear a Smokey costume, which is only produced by a licensed contractor and sold only to a government agency.) We have the bureaucracy angle! (We shelled out taxpayer dollars so that someone could type up a Smokey guidebook ordering costumed bears to make good use of their "paws, head, and legs" so that they can be "effective." Like, we really did that.)

And we also have the Congress-is-dysfunctional angle. After all, Smokey Bear somehow weaseled his way into a government funding bill that Americans have been waiting on for months—a bill that was so long that no congressperson had the time to actually read it. This isn't new: Lawmakers are skilled at stuffing bizarre, unrelated measures into funding bills, like the time Democrats tried to mandate paid sick leave for stalking victims and Republicans attempted to set aside billions for new weapons, both in COVID-19 relief legislation.

In this case, at least, the amendment in question will (hopefully) scrub one more meaningless crime from the books. Only YOU Can Prevent Overcriminalization!

CORRECTION: The government apparently prefers that we refer to Smokey the Bear as "Smokey Bear." I don't see anything in the spending bill decriminalizing the "the," so I've changed it just to be safe.