Everyone knows Smokey Bear, Woodsy Owl, and maybe even Ranger Rick Raccoon, but there are many other forest and forestry-related fictional characters that long ago fell by the wayside. Peeling Back the Bark‘s series on “Forgotten Characters from Forest History” continues with Part 12, in which we examine Benny Beaver.
Although Benny Beaver is back in the news, don’t be confused. The one making news is Oregon State University’s mascot, and that’s because he’s been redesigned. Again. The Benny Beaver beloved by forest history buffs was the mascot for the Redwood Region Conservation Council (RRCC).
The RRCC was a forest products industry group in the Redwood-Douglas fir region of California that sought to inform the public about the necessity of conserving the area’s natural resources, in particular commercial timber, and the importance of doing so for the benefit of all. The RRCC was involved in certifying forests for the American Tree Farm System and already employed Woody and the Keep Green program to get the word out about fire prevention when Benny was introduced.
What makes this character stand apart from all those is that his creators went to the trouble of formulating a backstory for him. Benny was introduced in the summer of 1965 (we don’t know when they stopped using him). In the introduction below, besides learning about Benny’s extended family and ancestors, they even implied that he was OSU’s Benny Beaver—hence the reference to being mauled by a wolverine (in 1965′s Rose Bowl, the University of Michigan handily defeated OSU.) And when Benny was introduced, Bernard Z. Agrons was RRCC’s president, so we think that’s where the name of Benny’s great uncle came from. Anyway, his creators did such an entertaining job on the backstory that I’m going to let the announcement of Benny’s “hiring” do the talking.
Benjamin “Benny” Beaver—faller, bucker, dam-builder and member of the world-famed lumbering family—has joined the Redwood Region Conservation Council as its supervisor of forest activities.
Benny applied to RRCC headquarters for work following a six-month period of convalescence.
Last January 1 while inspecting the culinary qualities of the wood structures which support Pasadena’s Rose Bowl, he was seriously mauled by a curmudgeonly wolverine. Seems the wolverine had left his home in Michigan for a trip to Disneyland and had stopped off in Pasadena for some mild exercise. A beaver with a football was all he could find to tussle with.
Healed, Benny headed back to his familiar forest where, he says, the most dangerous creatures are 21-year-old loggers on Saturday night and a funny old bear who wears a silly hat.
Benny’s first assignment will be to work with that bear—Smokey they call him—in an effort to keep the Redwood Region green. But being a charter member of the “hard-hat-on-head, we’re-not-dead” club, Benny indicated he would try to talk Smokey out of wearing his felt campaign hat.
“Widow-makers,” he warned, “can drive you into the deck like a wicket.”
Well known as an industrious woods worker, Benny has numerous qualifications for his job in forest conservation.
His great-great-great granddaddy pioneered the technique of selective logging, and early lumberjacks copied Benny’s great uncle Bernard Z. Beaver’s method of getting logs from the forest to the mill by river floating.
As a matter of fact, Benny’s cousins still excavate canals—some several hundred feet long—to float wood for life’s necessities into their communities. Their dams are engineered perfectly to keep the water in the canals at a proper depth….
The announcement concluded: “RRCC hopes the Redwood Region will welcome Benny Beaver. We expect him to fight wildfire, prevent litter-bugging and help us tell the public that conservation means the wise and multiple use of our natural resources.”
That last statement reveals the stumbling block to success that so many forest history characters trip over: they are given too many things to simultaneously to represent and it confuses the target audience. Is Benny about fire prevention? Stopping litter bugs? Wise and multiple use? Aren’t the first two really just part of the third? This problem of a muddled message is why the Forest Service later created Woodsy Owl—people were trying to use Smokey Bear to talk about litter and other issues and it diluted the power of Smokey’s message. Further complicating Benny’s path to stardom was the introduction of Cal Green and Sniff and Snuff in California the same year Benny was introduced. How’s a beaver in cut-off overalls supposed to compete against charismatic Cal and the sartorial splendor of Sniff and Snuff? As Benny might say, dam if I know.