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A conservation group that used Forest Service fire prevention mascot Smokey Bear in ads protesting the logging of old-growth forests is protected by free speech guarantees, a lawsuit contends.

The Forest Service violated the First Amendment by threatening to sue a conservation group that purchased newspaper ads showing a shifty-eyed bear in a ranger's hat hiding a chainsaw behind his back, court papers said.The Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund filed suit Monday in U.S. District Court on behalf of Light-Hawk, a conservation group based in Santa Fe, N.M.

LightHawk ran ads in three Midwestern newspapers in May using a caricature of Smokey Bear to criticize the Bush administration's timber policies in the Pacific Northwest.

Forest Service chief F. Dale Robertson sent a letter dated July 6, 1992, to LightHawk saying the Forest Service would go to court to stop the ad if it were published again, said Vic Sher, attorney for the legal defense fund.

Sandy Berger, Forest Service spokeswoman for the Pacific Northwest region, declined comment Monday from her home base in Portland, Ore., saying she had not seen the lawsuit and was unfamiliar with the Robertson letter.

No one could be reached for comment Monday evening at the Forest Service's Washington, D.C., office.

"This is the most effective public education message we've ever run," LightHawk's president Michael Stewartt said in a statement.

"Editorial cartoons have used Smokey Bear for years without objection, but the response drawn by our ad seems to have lit a fire under the Forest Service," Stew-artt said. "We will not sit by and let the Bush administration try to bully other groups and us into silence."

The Forest Service is trying to suppress LightHawk's ad because of its political content, an action prohibited by the U.S. Constitution, Sher said.

Free speech rights would supersede any claim by the Forest Service that the Smokey Bear symbol is the property of the U.S. government, the attorney said.

LightHawk ran the ad for three days last May in seven newspapers in Oklahoma, Iowa and Kansas. The group hopes to publish it again because it drew an unprecedented response, Sher said.

The ad showed a picture of Smokey Bear holding a chainsaw with the statement, "Say it ain't so, Smokey."

"The U.S. Forest Service is helping big timber companies chop down America's ancient forests in the Pacific Northwest," the ad said. "Today, your taxes pay for the destruction of your national forests. Speak out against the madness."