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For the past couple of years, rumors that the U.S. Forest Service has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to change American minds about one of our most enduring institutions have floated across the country.

Smokey the Bear, the forest people insist, has no middle name. He's just plain Smokey Bear.A radio spot first aired in 1990 and revived this year features a small child patiently explaining this to a thick-headed adult. "It's not Easter the Bunny," the child squeaks. "It's not Santa the Claus."

But what about the song taught to jillions of schoolkids learning about the dangers of forest fires from the venerable he-bear, now nearly 50 years old?

You know - "Smokey the Bear, Smokey the Bear, prowlin' and a-growlin' and a-sniffin' the air. He can find a fire before it starts to flame, that's why they call him Smokey, that was how he got his name."

What are the Forest Service, the National Association of State Foresters and the Advertising Council up to? Why did these fire-prevention program co-sponsors decide to produce the ad, which has prompted widespread rumors of the huge federal symbolic-bear-related expenditures?

Is this some kind of federal revisionist plot?

"The name has always been Smokey Bear," sighs Elsie Cunningham, program director for the national fire prevention effort. "There has never been a `the' in it. Apparently, someone had the need to fit words with music in a song. But the official name, by legislation, is Smokey Bear."

That legislation, passed in 1952, made the Forest Service Smokey's official owner.

Cunningham, described by a local Forest Service spokesman as "Smokey's mother," says she's heard people are laughing over how much it must have cost the Forest Service to create and run the ad.

She doesn't mind the fun-poking at all but says the rumors are kind of an urban myth. The radio spot, she says, is just one of many her program sponsors to teach the public about fire prevention.

Smokey has endured other bear-baiting incidents over the past half-century.

A dump-Smokey campaign started in the early 1970s after the Forest Service revised its old Smokey Bear theory demanding all forest fires be actively fought. As the new "let burn" policy gained popularity, some foresters thought the dungareed bear's time had come and gone.

Smokey has appeared drunk on the front of sweatshirts suggesting "Preserve Wildlife, Throw a Party." He's been serenaded by a song called "Smokey, You're a Hokey Kind of Bear." He's hustled drinks at a Washington, D.C., area bar called the Fire House by appearing on cocktail napkins that read, "Put out the fire! Try a Smokey bar cocktail."

Just this summer, a New Mexico-based conservation group went to court because it wanted to continue a media campaign against Forest Service timber-cutting policies that included newspaper ads showing a shifty-eyed Smokey hiding a chainsaw behind his back.

Smokey was created in 1944 by a California advertising firm to replace Bambi, who had been on loan to the government from Walt Disney for a year. Over the next few years, the poster Smokey changed from a fat little cub (with paws) to the grown-up bear he is today (with fingers). He also became fixed in the mind of Americans.

Then, in 1950, a half-dead orphan cub was found in a New Mexico forest fire. Nursed back to health by a little girl named Judy Bell, Smokey the symbol became Smokey the real bear.

The cub, which of course wouldn't stay tiny and cute forever, was taken to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., where he grew up in an exhibit that included a pair of jeans, a shovel and a hat (which replaced the one he chewed up at his welcoming ceremonies).

By 1965, the bear was so popular he was given his own ZIP code. In 1975, his staff of three secretaries reported answering about 140,000 letters written to him that year.

By then, Smokey was old and arthritic, and when he reached the equivalent of 70 human years old - the mandatory retirement age for federal employees - he retired with his mate, Goldie, to his native New Mexico.

A bear-apparent had been rescued from another forest fire and sent to the zoo as Smokey's replacement. But ideas about how animals were to be displayed at zoos had changed, and the hat, shovel and dungarees were not included in the bear's exhibit, nor was the bear called Smokey.

That bear died in 1990 and will not be replaced, Cunningham says.

"If it gets out that Smokey is dead, it confuses the kids," she says. "They want to know, is he dead or not? We prefer to highlight the poster bear, which is a symbol of fire prevention."