ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) - You may not find a bigger Smokey Bear fan than retired state forester Bill Chapel.
His office is covered with knick knacks of the New Mexico-born fire prevention icon.
In the 1980's, he came up with the idea of putting Smokey on a hot air balloon as an effective way to bring attention to the bear's cause. It didn't go anywhere at first, but in 1993 he got the go-ahead. The Smokey Bear Balloon was built to help celebrate Smokey's 50th anniversary.
Since then the Albuquerque-based balloon has flown internationally and across the country. This year alone it graced the skies of eight different states.
The hot air balloon gets some federal help. Since 2005, the National Forest Service has chipped in nearly $240,000 to help pay for balloon costs and appearances. Chapel says that's a small part of the Friends of the Smokey Bear Balloon's approximately $200,000 a year budget.
But not small enough for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R - KY). Today at the opening day of a new Senate, he called out the Smokey Bear Balloon as a waste of taxpayer dollars.
"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," McConnell said. "If we can't fix the easy stuff... how are we ever going to get at the hard stuff?"
Chapel was taken aback by the powerful Republican's assessment.
"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?"
New Mexico State Forestry spokesperson Dan Ware says 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."
McConnell isn't the first GOP senator to be critical of the balloon. In his annual "Waste Book", Sen. Tom Coburn (R - OK) listed the $31,000 in federal funding spent on the Smokey Bear Balloon in 2012 as a needless cost, saying the money would be better spent towards more DC-10 tankers to fight wildfires.
The Smokey Bear Balloon was involved in an infamous Balloon Fiesta crash in 2004. Chapel was piloting when a gust of wind steered him into a 700-foot radio tower where the balloon's envelope snagged and ripped apart. Chapel and two boys who were riding in the balloon had to climb down.
Chapel says he got $30,000 in tax dollars to buy a new one, money his group had to match.
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