U.S. senator pops ‘Smokey Bear’ balloon

The Smokey Bear hot air balloon, an Albuquerque mainstay, is being called a waste of taxpayersí money by Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. Enlarge photo

Associated Press file photo

The Smokey Bear hot air balloon, an Albuquerque mainstay, is being called a waste of taxpayersí money by Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

ALBUQUERQUE Ė A well-known hot air balloon in the likeness of a New Mexico-born fire prevention icon is now at a center of a tug-of-war over federal spending.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Thursday during the Senateís opening day that the Smokey Bear balloon was a waste of taxpayer dollars, especially at a time when the Republicans are looking to tackle the federal deficit.

ďIf we canít stop spending taxpayer dollars on robo-squirrels, and dancing robot DJs or hot air balloon rides for Smokey the Bear, then thereís no hope at all,Ē said the Senateís top Republican. ďIf we canít fix the easy stuff ... how are we ever going to get at the hard stuff?Ē

The Albuquerque-based balloon has long been a regular at the cityís International Balloon Fiesta and has flown internationally. Since 2005, the National Forest Service has spent nearly $240,000 to help pay for balloon costs.

Retired state forester Bill Chapel told KRQE-TV that the balloon is an educational tool and he would fight any effort to cut funding.

ďIím ready to go fist-to-fist with him,Ē Chapel said. ďWeíve learned since weíve been able to walk that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Has the man never heard of that?Ē

Chapel said the federal aid is a small part of the estimated $200,000-a-year budget for Friends of the Smokey Bear Balloon, a nonprofit organization.

New Mexico State Forestry spokesman Dan Ware said the balloon ultimately pays for itself.

ďThe balloon, much like Smokey Bear himself, is a symbol and itís a teaching tool,Ē Ware said. ďItís an intangible. If one wildfire isnít caused because someone remembers the message of Smokey Bear from when they were a child or when they were an adult, if one person contributes to not causing a human-caused wildfire, then I think itís worth it.Ē