Walk into the new Forest Service information center and an animatronic Smokey Bear raises his head from reading his fan mail and greets you with his familiar phrase "Remember...only you can prevent forest fires." Smokey Bear is just one of the center's many interactive exhibits designed to educate visitors about the national forests and grasslands and inspire them to take an active role in caring for them.
"Our national forests and grasslands are a part of our country's precious heritage," said Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman, who oversees the Forest Service as part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "The Forest Service information center is a good way to give families, schoolchildren, and tourists who visit Washington, D.C., educational information on how we as individuals can be good stewards of the land."
The center's exhibits are housed in a forest lodge that has been created from Georgia southern pine in the Forest Service's national headquarters. Hand-painted simulated rugs on the wood floors enhance the beauty and authenticity of the lodge. Actual firefighting gear is displayed for viewing and touching and children can take home Smokey Bear coloring and comic books that carry his important message. In the lodge store, called "Earthsmart," visitors use interactive touch screens to make choices about their everyday actions and learn what they can do to conserve our national forests and grasslands.
In the hall of the lodge, visitors can view videos and see old photographs of lands and how they changed over time through use and care. The photographs are from the agency's collection, which was started in 1876--the same year the forest reserves were established. Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the Forest Service, was a photographer, and began the collection of photographs of activities on national forests.
Video presentations contain images from 1876 to the present and provide a feel for the people of the Forest Service, including such employees as Hallie Daggett, one of the first female Forest Service lookouts.
"It is exciting to be a part of this center where people can learn the history of our forests and grasslands and the many benefits that come from them," said Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth. "We want the public to have a better understanding of the important role our natural resources have played in the life of our country."
The center is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday year-round, and from March 15 through Sept. 15, it is also open on weekends, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. The exhibits are wheel-chair accessible and open captioned. By Oct. 1, the exhibits will be audio-described as well. Friendly Forest Service employees staff the center and welcome visitors of all ages.