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 Senate's 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.
"If we can't stop spending taxpayer dollars on robo-squirrels, and dancing robot DJ's or hot air balloon rides for Smokey the Bear, then there's no hope at all," said the Senate's top Republican. "If we can't fix the easy stuff ... how are we ever going to get at the hard stuff?"
The Albuquerque-based balloon has long been a regular at the city's 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 said the balloon is an educational tool and he would fight any effort to cut funding.
"I'm ready to go fist to fist with him," Chapel said. "We've learned since we've been able to walk that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Has the man never heard of that?"
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.
"The balloon, much like Smokey Bear himself, is a symbol and it's a teaching tool," Ware said. "It's an intangible. If one wildfire isn't 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 it's worth it."
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