MYNORTHWEST HISTORY

All Over The Map: Keep Washington Green . . . and don’t be a GUBERIF!

May 24, 2022, 7:36 AM | Updated: Oct 25, 2022, 4:21 pm

Idaho's "Don't be a GUBERIF!" anti-forest fire campaign included a very creepy costume of the Guber...

Idaho's "Don't be a GUBERIF!" anti-forest fire campaign included a very creepy costume of the Guberif ("firebug" spelled backward), probably worn by a forest ranger who wished he had something better to do. (Public domain)

(Public domain)

Memorial Day Weekend is almost here, and that means the official start of camping season. It also means the intense part of wildfire season is likely not far behind.

Everybody knows Smokey Bear is the national mascot for wildfire prevention. However, a few years before Smokey came on the national scene, a group of timber industry people – notably Roderick Olzendam of Weyerhaeuser, who’s credited with having the idea (though there were earlier “Keep Green” campaigns in Vermont and Minnesota in the 1920s) – and Governor Clarence Martin right here in the Evergreen State launched the “Keep Washington Green” campaign in May 1940.

The effort is credited with helping reduce the number of wildfires, and it also inspired similar “Keep Green” initiatives in many other states.

“Keep Washington Green” was essentially a publicity campaign to educate people about the dangers of forest fires, and about what steps individuals could take to help prevent them. It was a sensible idea at the time, but it was also relatively new in 1940 to use media and other advertising channels not to sell a product, but to alter public behavior. In the 1930s, what’s now the March of Dimes used similar techniques to raise awareness of polio and solicit donations in support of patients and research.

The “Keep Green” effort came on the heels of something else that happened in the 1930s: two devastating fires near Tillamook, Oregon. With World War II already raging in Europe, officials here saw a need to protect the forest – and all that precious timber – from deliberate sabotage or equally devastating accidental fires.

“Keep Washington Green” consisted of print ads, posters, road signs, folk songs, a speaker’s bureau and, of course, those big white letters painted on pavement that read:

KEEP

WASHINGTON

GREEN.

And, in a move that would be mimicked a decade or so later by the US Forest Service for their Smokey Bear publicity efforts, “Keep Washington Green” even offered a “Junior Forest Warden” program complete with membership cards.

Along with the public officials and corporate leaders, there were a couple of heavy-hitter Northwest writers involved on the creative side of “Keep Washington Green.” One was Stewart Holbrook – who should be better known than he is, since he is regarded by many as one of the best mainstream history writers to ever work in the Northwest. The other was Jim Stevens, the writer who popularized the western mythology of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, and who wrote Big Jim Turner, the definitive novel about logging camp labor unrest. Stevens wrote lyrics to folk songs about wildfire prevention, which restaurateur (and infamous clam nectar pusher) Ivar Haglund often sang on the radio.

Oregon followed with its own “Keep Oregon Green” program in 1941, and then Minnesota created, you guessed it, “Keep Minnesota Green” in 1944. These were followed by a national “Keep America Green” program, and then many other state programs were started around the country in the years immediately following World War II. According to a website devoted to research archives, “Keep Washington Green” was “was dissolved, December 31, 1995 after a decrease in membership, industry, and federal and state funding resources, coupled with an increased awareness by other agencies and organizations about the need to educate their constituents on the dangers of wildfires.”

James Lewis is a historian at the Forest History Society in Durham, North Carolina. Along with providing much of the background research for this story, Lewis provided additional details about “Keep Green” efforts next door to Washington in the Gem State.

“Idaho goes a very different direction,” with their campaign, Lewis said by phone on Thursday. “They create a character from scratch. It more or less looks like a cricket or grasshopper, and they take the word ‘firebug’ and reverse the letters, which spells ‘guberif.’”

Washington had no statewide fire-prevention mascot of its own, nor did Oregon or California. In fact, says James Lewis, Idaho might be the only state that created its own character.

“And so in Idaho, their campaign was ‘Don’t be a GUBERIF,’” Lewis said, and it really caught on among Idahoans. In a few vintage sketches (and a photo of someone wearing a Guberif costume), the fire mascot looks like something of a hoodlum insect – and is often depicted smoking and discarding butts, matches, and ashes by throwing them into the woods. The Guberif was no kindly fire-preventin’ bear letting you eat his honey and pretending he wasn’t so smart – this Guberif fellow was a bad guy doing bad things.

The costumes and brochures are now decades in the rearview mirror for Idahoans, but there’s apparently still a chance of catching a glimpse out the windshield of some of the last remaining pieces of evidence of The Age of Guberif.

“You can still find one or two rest areas” in Idaho, says James Lewis, “where, as you’re pulling in, you see the words painted on the pavement and it says, ‘DON’T BE A GUBERIF.’”

According to a report produced in 2020 by KTVB 7 News in Boise, the last known place to see a “DON’T BE A GUBERIF” pavement painting was Heyburn State Park south of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.

If you can confirm the existence of this pavement artifact, please contact Feliks Banel via the links below (and please send a photo). In the meantime, it’s probably best if you DON’T BE A GUBERIF.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News and read more from him here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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All Over The Map: Keep Washington Green . . . and don’t be a GUBERIF!