International Falls awoke to a shocking sight this summer… an empty pedestal in Smokey Bear Park. After 66 years on the job, Smokey and his cubs had disappeared overnight, leaving nothing behind but a large shovel and a few scattered garments. Reportedly, a big bear and two cubs were seen swimming across Rainy River to Canada.
This bizarre story awakened my dormant reporter’s instincts, so I snuck across the Minnesota/Ontario border to track it down.
I found the bear and his cubs in a wooded area several miles north of Fort Frances. He seemed to be in good spirits so I jumped right in with a question. “Why did you leave the U.S. after so many years?”
Smokey settled back on his haunches, scratched his belly in contemplation and finally said, “For several reasons… mainly, because Canada’s a much safer place for me and my cubs. Canadian Wildland Natural Resources reports that 2020 was one of the quietest years for forest fires since the 1990s.”
“A quiet year for forest fires? You gotta’ be kidding me!” I replied with disbelief. “As of Oct. 5, forest fires in the U.S. have torched 12,187 square miles of timberland and it’s not over.”
Smokey nodded his head. “I know. That’s exactly why I left. Canada only lost 965 square miles of forests to fire this summer.”
I was astonished.
“I don’t want my cubs to go through what I experienced as a youngster. It’s much safer for us in Canada,” he continued. “Not to bore you with statistics, but over half of North America’s forests grow on Canadian soil and 94% of these forests are publicly owned. Only 7 percent of that land is excluded from harvesting, mining and hydroelectric projects. The remaining 93 percent is professionally managed under Canada’s Sustainable Forest Management Program.”
“Canada’s 1,606,185 square miles of forests produce a heck of a lot of lumber. In 2019, Canada shipped over $8 billion worth of lumber around the world… and the U.S. is a big customer.”
I knew exactly what he was talking about. I’d spent too much time stuck at the railroad crossing in Ranier, waiting for one of Canadian National’s two miles of Chinese container cars and railcars full of Canadian lumber rattle across the tracks on their way to Chicago.
“Yet, the price of lumber rose 60 percenbt this summer,” I mused. “Roof trusses and treated boards were scarcer than last spring’s toilet paper. Right now, International Falls contractors are scrambling for material to finish houses and garages before winter hits.”
“It’s a complicated situation,” Smokey said. “And, it’s not all about timber. In July, Manitoba opened additional Crown Lands to grazing and haying to support agriculture and eliminate fuel to keep the fire danger down.”
“Yeah… and here in the states they worry about farting cows,” I interrupted, laughing ruefully.
Smokey gave me a hard look. “Forest fires mean the loss of human lives, millions of acres, structures and air that’s dangerous to breathe… not to mention the astronomical cost of fire suppression and the massive carbon footprint of a forest. In a single week of 2017, fires in Northern California’s wine country emitted as much carbon dioxide as all of California’s cars and trucks produced for the entire year. Over the past 20 years, U.S. wildfires have discharged an average of 8 billion tons of CO2 a year into the air. In 2017 emissions rose to 32.5 billion tons.”
“Carbon footprints are made up of Black Carbon and Dioxins containing toxic chemicals that cause cancer, reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, interfere with hormones and take a very long time to break down. Emissions from all the dead wood left by a fire continue for several decades.”
Smokey concluded with glistening eyes. “I didn’t want to leave my country, but Americans are blaming global warming rather than poor forest management for all the devastation from fires in the U.S. this summer. And, it’s not over yet. Do they really believe that the effects of global warming magically cease at the dotted line between the U.S. and Canada?”
I couldn’t think of anything else to ask or say, so I thanked Smokey and left to the sounds of growl-like laughter echoing across the clearing as a very contented bear played with his cubs under a brilliant blue Canadian sky.
Blais is a former Journal reporter who spends summers in Ranier, and the rest of her time at Summer Lake, Oregon.