images/voice_uploads/wardriver.gif">Long before racecar driver Ward Burton crossed the finish line to win this year’s prestigious Daytona 500 and pocketed $1.4 million dollars, he lived in a shack, in the woods, with no electricity and no running water. Such would ordinarily be the basis for a rags-to-riches story. In fact, what follows is a story about choices, dreams, passion, and commitment. It is a story about one man’s lifelong quest to acquire land for conservation and protection of wildlife habitats. It is a story about The Ward Burton Wildlife Foundation.
Growing up in Southside Virginia, this Halifax, VA resident learned early on the value of preserving natural resources. It was instilled in him by his grandfather, Ed Burton, a noted writer for the Richmond Times-Dispatch and a two-time Virginia State Sporting Clay Champion. He taught his grandson how to shoot a shotgun, hunt and fish, and appreciate the environment and nature. Burton remembers his grandfather’s influence very well.
“I got passionate at an early age about wildlife. There weren’t a lot of kids around where I was brought up, so my parents let me spend a lot of time outdoors,” he said. “I was always fascinated by Mother Nature and my grandfather was an outdoor fanatic. His philosophy rubbed off on me in a positive way.”
At 12 years of age, and much to the dismay of his mother, Burton convinced his father that he would enjoy and could survive living in the woods by himself for weekends at a time. Brandishing only a backpack, fishing pole, and shotgun, and living in a wooden shanty, Burton immersed himself in the beauty and serenity of a piece of land commonly known as The Cove.
According to the Foundation’s Executive Director, Dennis Campbell, those early survival-in-the-wild adventures helped make Burton the man he is today.
“[They] gave him not only an appreciation for nature, but self-confidence as well,” Campbell said. “He learned first hand about nature and his love for that piece of land began to grow.”
So much so that, as an adult, Burton traveled back to his childhood retreat and chose to live there in pioneer-style for two years. Besides that episode of living a Henry David Thoreau-like existence, Burton’s life history includes graduation from Hargrove Military Academy, a brief stint at Elon College, and stolid interest in his father’s construction business.
His life vocation wasn’t set until he got the opportunity to drive a racecar in the Busch Series in 1990 after driving stock cars on Virginia short tracks in the late 1980s. He advanced to Winston Cup in 1994 and the means to fund what had only been an abstraction- to conserve and protect wildlife habitats- became a reality when The Ward Burton Wildlife Foundation was created in 1996.
Campbell met Burton through a fund-raising effort and, after volunteering to raise money for his foundation, was asked to go to work for him.
“Had I not believed in what he was doing, I would not have done that,” said Campbell. “We both foster a great appreciation for the outdoors and, with those same ideas, it was a natural fit.”
The mission statement for the WBWF “…is to promote an awareness of the need for wildlife conservation, habitat enhancement, and proper stewardship of our natural resources through preservation and education.”
The piece de resistance of The Ward Burton Wildlife Foundation is the land that harbors what Burton is trying to protect-the fauna, fish, fowl and wildlife, including black bear, bobcat, fox, turkey, and white-tailed deer. Even a bald eagle has been spotted on the property. Yes, it is that same piece of land that Burton frequented as a youth and inspired him to be a steward of the environment.
With Burton’s financial assistance and aid from corporations, the Foundation has amassed over 2,000 acres of property within the boundaries of the Staunton River. On it sits a plantation home that was built in the late 1700s. There are oak trees that are hundreds of years old and an elm tree, one of the few to escape Dutch elm disease that is estimated to be one hundred and fifty years old.
“[The property] is protected on all sides by the river and there is one road that leads down into the area and it can be controlled.” Campbell said. “There are areas in there that will be kept wild. We’re building a water impoundment that will be handicap accessible. We’re going to work with the Audubon Society to build a series of nature trails.”
In addition, the Foundation is raising money to purchase 3800 more acres of adjoining land. According to a WBWF brochure, “this purchase will protect the property from development and subdivision, work to prevent further degradation of the land, and provide suitable habitats for all forms of wildlife.”
Other projects of the Foundation include, but are not limited to, planting wildlife food plots, creating wood duck breeding sites, maintaining a wetland for migratory water fowl, and establishing a reward program for the illegal poaching of black bear. These projects and others are managed with the partnership of such entities as the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, Ducks Unlimited, the National Wild Turkey Federation, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and the U.S. Forest Service. The expertise found in each is invaluable to the WBWF in their zeal to preserve and protect nature.
“The biologists in those departments have a great deal of knowledge that is beneficial to what we need from a forestry standpoint and a wildlife standpoint.” said Campbell.
Besides initiatives to restore wildlife habitats and manage lands controlled by the Foundation, the WBWF is focusing intently on the education of elementary school children about the merits of responsible environmental stewardship. They are doing this through a program called “Return to Nature,” designed to teach children to become aware of the environment and gain an appreciation for it.
“We believe it will benefit future generations because our environment is in the hands of today’s youth.” Campbell said. “If we don’t instill in them those values and traditions that we hold so dearly, we’ve lost out.”
The program’s executive director, Mike Roberts, travels to schools across the state of Virginia to carry the message of accountable management of our lands and their natural inhabitants. Last year, the program reached over 50,000 school children and this year that number is expected to increase to nearly 70,000.
“We’ve done this by word of mouth. As schools become aware of this, they make an appointment to bring Mike in,” said Campbell. “It’s hard to hold the attention of elementary school children, but I’ve seen Mike captivate children and teachers alike for forty-five minutes to an hour.”
These presentations are free of charge to the school. To schedule a visit, log on to www.thewardburtonwildlife- foundation.org and contact the foundation.
There are also future plans to build an educational center on the Halifax County property. It will emphasize wildlife conservation and be available to groups for seminars and field trips.
“We’re going to bring in educators and have break out sessions where they can learn to become environmental stewards and, in turn, teach the children properly,” Campbell said. “With single-family homes or two working parents, they don’t have the time to take their children to the outdoors. We live in an electronic world and there’s nothing wrong with that; neither is there anything wrong with soccer or football. But as we become more urbanized, children do not have the opportunity to go to a wild area. That’s where we’re going to come in.”
The works of The Ward Burton Wildlife Foundation are dependent upon corporate partners and donations from individuals in the private sector.
According to Campbell, many groups have come to the forefront to lend monetary or other support, including MBNA Bank (helped acquire 450 acres of land), Caterpillar, Inc. (donated a Cat 939 Track Loader for the Foundation’s use), Bass Pro Shops, Inc., Natural Gear Camo, and Cain and Company. The vision-sharing public can join the foundation by making cash contributions in amounts as little as $25.
Besides land management and youth education, the Foundation has long-term goals that include providing conservation programs for handicapped persons, creating a watershed for native wildlife, an outdoor classroom for fishing derbies, and an estuary along the Staunton River for transient waterfowl and neotropical migrant songbirds. These goals are bonded by a cause to ensure that future generations are able to enjoy natural resources.
“People will protect what they value and appreciate,” said Campbell. “What we’re trying to do is teach them to become good stewards of the land and to be environmentally conscious.”
The Foundation’s namesake echoes those sentiments.
“I want to give back and we’re working real hard to make this wildlife foundation grow into a nationally recognized conservation-minded effort,” Burton said. “[I want to] get the word out to the next generation the importance of our natural environment.”
Like USA Today and other renowned publications, Appalachian Voice is pleased to carry that message.
For more information regarding The Ward Burton Wildlife Foundation and how you can participate, write to P.O. Box 519, Halifax, VA 24558 or call (434) 476- 7038.