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The Northwoods River News | Rhinelander, Wisconsin

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June 1, 2020

5/22/2020 7:25:00 AM
The Lake Where You Live: OUR LAKES NEED A 'SMOKEY'
Ted Rulseh

Imagine that for preaching forest fire prevention each state or county was on its own. They had to craft their own messages, create their own materials, handle distribution, and more, all at significant cost.

Fortunately, they don't have to. Since 1944, the U.S. Forest Service's Smokey Bear has delivered the message for them. Smokey's image is everywhere, and almost everyone remembers his slogan: "Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires." In 2001, that was updated to, "Only You Can Prevent Wildfires." Regardless, we see Smokey's image, we know what he's saying.

What does this have to do with lakes and the lake where you live? Potentially a great deal. A groundswell is rising around the need to keep our lake shorelines natural, to prevent unwise development, and so help protect against all manner of pollution and other damage caused by runoff.

State natural resources agencies are promoting natural shorelines. So are counties. Watershed councils. University extensions. Lake associations and lake districts. They're all bravely trying to do it on their own, sharing some materials, maybe, but largely bearing the full weight of their own communication initiatives, with severely limited staffs and funds.

The aims are clear. The messages aren't complicated. They largely apply to property owners on any inland lake. Yet the initiative is fragmented into thousands of little pieces, and the messages stated in dozens or hundreds of different ways.

So I ask: Given all this, if we really want to promote natural shorelines, why don't we create our own "Smokey"? Invent a lovable yet authoritative spokes-creature easily identified with healthy lakes. Create a simple, memorable slogan.

Then beneath it produce a website, plus posters, radio spots, videos, information sheets, and more - all easily available to any organization wishing to reproduce and distribute them. There could be bumper stickers. Window placards. Signs placed beneath fire numbers. Public service announcements for TV and radio.

So, all of a sudden there's a clear, unified message with a memorable visual and a few high-impact words to support the substantive instructions: Maintain a buffer strip along the shoreline, have your septic system serviced, keep the water from rainfall on the land, and so forth.

This approach isn't magical; it took a fair bit of money and time to imprint Smokey Bear in the American psyche.

But with an ever-growing army of lake advocates, the message about natural shorelines could spread like, well, wildfire, creating momentum for changing social norms about what kind of lakefront development is and is not healthy.

The message should easily resonate with lake property owners. Everyone loves the lakes and can see the value - ecological, aesthetic and economic - of protecting them. The spokes-creature could offer a consistent reminder that lake quality begins on the land.

So, who or what is this spokes-creature? A loon? A frog or turtle? A walleye? A kingfisher? I don't know, but surely an enterprising marketing agency could come up with an appropriate messenger and slogan.

The natural shoreline concept is steadily working its way into the mainstream of thought. Now is the time for a unified campaign to drive the point home and make it stick, doing for our lakes what Smokey has done for our forests.

Ted Rulseh resides on Birch Lake in Harshaw and is an advocate for lake protection and improvement. His Lakeland Times and Northwoods River News columns are the basis for a book, "A Lakeside Companion," published by The University of Wisconsin Press. Ted may be reached at

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