11 years ago, the late, great Betty White would hug Smokey Bear, receive her U.S. Forest Service hat and badge, and proceed to change America.
From her work with zoos and animal rescues to becoming an honorary forest ranger, the remarkable century-long life of Betty White will be remembered as passionately for her contributions to conservation as it will for her comedic genius. In 2010, the U.S. Forest Service would formally recognize this by bestowing her with their highest civilian honor.
White would receive her badge, hat, and stuffed Smokey Bear within the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts; whose walls have housed awards for the most influential individuals in modern America. U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell would speak for all of us at the time, telling Ms. White: “I am sorry you couldn’t join us before. Judging from your illustrious career, you would have made marvelous contributions to our agency and to the cause of conservation across the United States. Betty, you are a role model for little girls – for all of us – never to give up on our dreams.”
‘In my heart I’ve been a forest ranger all my life, but now I’m official’
With tears in her eyes, the then 88-year-old Betty White would respond with a profound summary of who she was – and will forever remain – as a human being.
“Wilderness is getting harder and harder to find these days on our beautiful planet and we’re abusing our planet to the point of almost no return,” she began during her speech. “In my heart I’ve been a forest ranger all my life, but now I’m official.”
This was no boast, either. According to the legend herself, Betty White’s first memory is of riding in the saddle with her father, Horace Logan White, through California’s High Sierra. A deep, fiery passion for the outdoors would follow; something that prevailed through every day of her 99-year life.
“My first memories are riding in front of my dad on his horse as we packed into the high Sierras,” White offered. “And we’d go in there for three weeks and never see another two-legged soul other than birds, in our lives. And then we’d come back and I’d live all the next year waiting for our next trip into the wildness.”
“I cannot thank you enough,” White would continue in 2010. “As excited as I am today, as grateful as I am – I know two people who would be over the moon – my mom and dad,” she added for Horace and her mother, Christine Tess. White attributed her mother for her being “born a cockeyed optimist.. I got it from my mom, and that never changed. I always find the positive,” she would tell PEOPLE days before her death in 2021.
The Conservation Work of Betty White
“Whether I’ve been a legitimate forest ranger or not, I’ve been working for the cause for the last 89 years,” she would continue in 2010. “I know this is an honorary position but it’s also one where I can use a voice try to protect the remaining beautiful parts of this gorgeous world we live on.”
And give nature a voice she did. She made more than good on her role with the U.S. Forest Service, working in tandem to promote conservation of the great outdoors and educating on the dangers of wildfires prevalently throughout the last decades of her life.
White first turned her love of conservation into a parallel career beginning in the 1970s as she hosted and produced The Pet Set, in which she showcased fellow celebrities and their pets.
From there, she would go on to significant involvement with Actors & Others for Animals, The Morris Animal Foundation (of which she was president emerita from 2009-on and trustee as far back as 1971), and the African Wildlife Foundation.
A Friend to Every Animal
But her work through the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association would become one of her life’s biggest callings. She would join their team in 1974, and served as Zoo Commissioner for 8 years of her half-a-century affiliation. Untold thousands of her own earnings would support the LA Zoo’s conservation, with White donating almost $100,000 to the cause in the month of April 2008.
And this was all but the tip of the iceberg. Betty White would also author multiple books on her love of animals, nature, and conservation, donating much of the proceeds to the causes above, as well.