Ward Burton is living proof that one person can change the world.
Single-handedly, and mostly out of sheer determination, he has saved 2100 acres of Southside Virginia riverfront wilderness, preserving it as a wildlife habitat, and keeping it safe from development in perpetuity.
He began this endeavor without government assistance, without university degrees, without a grassroots movement of supporters, or a national public relations campaign. He just very quietly up and did it, using his own money in the beginning, and learning about bureaucratic red tape as he went. He did it because he loves that land.
What is so astonishing about the fact that he became an environmental hero is that Ward Burton achieved fame and fortune not as an environmentalist, but as a NASCAR driver. He won the Daytona 500: the only Virginian ever to do so, and it was his success in the fast world of stock car racing that enabled him to realize his dream of protecting the Cove.
I became aware of his existence when I was writing St. Dale, a novel centered around NASCAR. Despite my mentor’s advice to choose a driver to root for while I was learning about motorsports, I staunchly resisted such a subjective approach to research, but somehow it happened anyway. One moment I was celestially impartial to the outcome of the race, and the next instant he was all that mattered. There was no logic to it-- he was having a dismal season, and I wasn’t even sure what he looked like-- but any race fan can tell you that partisanship is a strange malady, lying somewhere between falling in love and dengue fever.
Anyhow, after months of devotion to the fierce-looking creature in a red and black fire suit, whom I had nicknamed the Angel of Death, I finally met his off-track avatar: a gentle, soft-spoken man who at 43 looks like Hollywood’s idea of a combat general: cold blue eyes, close-cropped hair tinged with gray, and perfectly chiseled features that make him look stronger and wiser than anyone could possibly be. Perhaps to the bewilderment of our respective organizations, he and I became friends.
I finally told him about my unfathomable affection for his racing persona: how I fumed when they cut to commercial during his qualifying laps, and during races how I cried every time he wrecked. He was pretty nice about it. After all, he ought to know what it is like to love something with a passion that you find hard to explain to disinterested bystanders.
The objection of his devotion is two thousand acres of wilderness.
After we became acquainted, he read my novel The Rosewood Casket, a lament about mountain people losing their land to development, and he thought the main character Clayt Stargill was based on him. In chapter eleven of the novel, when his brothers are considering selling the farm to a real estate developer, Clayt makes an impassioned plea to save it:
“This land has the look of winter yet. That’s why you can talk so easy about giving up this land. Three weeks from now those words would stick in your throats. You’ve forgotten, haven’t you, what it’s like here in late spring? So beautiful it almost takes your breath away? The lilac bushes reach almost to the second-floor window by now, and they’ll be covered with flowers, making the breeze smell like perfume. The maples will be leafed out on the hills. You can see ridge after ridge from here -- all the way to North Carolina. The stream will be ready for trout fishing, and the blackberries will be gearing up for summer. And at twilight fawns will come out to play under the trees in the meadow. You couldn’t give it up if you remembered.”
The scene ends with Clayt saying: “I can’t live with any solution that includes a developer.”
At his Wildlife Foundation web site, I found a quote from Ward Burton that would have fit perfectly into that scene: “The land is like a child to me. I can nurture it and take care of it, or I can abuse it. I can see it just sitting there, and it can’t speak. It doesn’t have a voice and doesn’t have any rights. If I don’t take care of it, who will ?”
I thought: “The Rosewood Casket would have been a much better book if I’d known that Clayt Stargill could have been a NASCAR driver.”
I became fascinated with the paradox of a man who could be at once a master of high tech and high speeds, and at the same time so attuned to nature that he makes you want to set your watch back two hundred years.
He comes naturally to this dichotomy of lifestyles. “I’ve been racing for as long as I’ve been going to the Cove,” he says. “Since I was eight. So both worlds seem normal to me.”
He spent the winter weekends of his childhood camping alone in the Cove, which was then owned by his childhood mentor C.R. Sanders. On Friday afternoons Ward’s parents would drop him off on a country road miles from home, and he would walk into the wilderness area with a fishing rod, a shotgun, and a bedroll, camping out there in a waterless, unheated cabin until they picked him up again at dusk on Sunday. He learned to be self-reliant - and he learned to love the wilderness. Summers, though, would find him back on the pavement, racing a succession of bigger and faster vehicles until finally in the early 90’s, he made it all the way to NASCAR Cup racing, and suddenly his face was on a thousand sports cards and his trademarked signature graced everything from hats to tee shirts. Even at the pinnacle of his racing career, though, he hardly ever let a week go by without a visit to the Cove. He used some of his winnings to maintain the land, and in return it gave him - what? Serenity? Roots? Or perhaps a place to be just himself without the adulation, the crowds, and the demands of a high-powered celebrity existence.
After a decade in NASCAR, during which he won races at Darlington, Rockingham, New Hampshire, and Daytona, Ward Burton is no longer racing. When I caught up with him on a hazy day in mid-July in Halifax County, Virginia, he was driving a red Dodge pick-up at sight-seeing speed along the dirt roads that interlace the property known as the Cove, a horseshoe-shaped isthmus of land along the Staunton River, which forms the nexus of the Ward Burton Wildlife Foundation. The site is a wilderness reclaimed from eighteenth century farmsteads and from more than a century of cultivation, during which time forests were laid waste, wetlands drained, and non-native plants were introduced into the ecosystem. Since Ward Burton took over the stewardship of the land, he has begun the painstaking process of putting it all back, replanting the fields with native grasses, restoring the habitat for waterfowl, and tending the forest.
As we drive past a cleared field bounded by the river, he nods toward the acres of newly planted crops. “Clover and alfalfa,” he says. “We just planted this field a few weeks ago. I own planting equipment, but no harvesting equipment. The crops are there for the wildlife to eat.”
He had to learn how to take care of the land. He had grown up in a suburban neighborhood, and there was no family farm: the Burtons were in the construction business. Little by little over the years, without any formal training in forestry or agriculture, and at first even without expert advice, he learned how to take care of the land. Sometimes the process was a matter of trial and error, and sometimes he got it wrong. He remembers one such incident.
“The previous owner had not paid the taxes on the land in about five years,” he says. “Just by chance I found out that the bank was planning to sell of 350 acres of the land to pay the taxes, so I went down there early the next morning, and I was waiting for the bank officer when she came in the door. I talked to her, and she gave me a week to raise the money-- which I didn’t have.” His expression grows somber, and for an instant one can see an echo of the quietly determined young man whom the bank had given a week to work a miracle.
He raised the thousands of dollars needed to stop the land sale in the only way he could think of: he timbered sixty acres of Cove forest, and sold the lumber to square the debt. It worked. The sale was halted and the tract of land remained intact, but for him the triumph of that rescue seems clouded by the mistakes he made.
“I didn’t have anybody to advise me,” he says. “It’s okay to timber the land, but there’s things I should have done that I didn’t know to do. Like replanting trees right away, or leaving seed trees in place. Timbering it selectively. There are state forestry people who could have told me the right way to go about it. I didn’t know what resources were out there to help land owners.”
He knows now, and one of the goals of his foundation is to educate landowners in conservation, so that they will become better stewards of the land.
Over the years, he has added to the original land purchase so that the area now comprises 2100 acres, including seven and a half miles of river frontage along the Staunton River. It is sanctuary to beaver, deer, black bear, wild turkeys, waterfowl, and other species native to the eastern forest with conservation easements to ensure that these Cove dwellers stay protected. Beyond that immediate goal of saving this particular stretch of wilderness, the property is intended to serve as a model nationally, a demonstration of what can be done to provide a well-managed wildlife habitat. One goal of the foundation is to expand its mission, creating similar conservation models on donated lands across the country.
In December 2003 the Ward Burton Wildlife Foundation received a one-million dollar federally-funded Forest Legacy grant, one of fewer than forty such grants awarded nationwide that year. Used to obtain easements for 1100 acres of land at the Cove, the Forest Legacy grant helped make it possible to conserve the area in its natural state for future generations to enjoy.
“Racing gave me the opportunity to fulfill my dream of preserving the Cove,” he says. “If I had not had a successful career in racing, I would have never had the means to set up the foundation and to preserve the integrity of the land. I feel very fortunate that I have been able to accomplish so many of my goals, and to be able to give back to the land.”
Perhaps it is the example that matters as much as the achievement. There is much more to be done with this land - probably a lifetime’s worth - but that was always a given.
“It is the land that matters,” Ward Burton says simply, gazing out at the sweep of oak forest and gently rolling fields that have sustained him spiritually all his life. This is his real purpose in life, being guardian of that land, and using his success to encourage others to do the same.
“I can’t save it all,” he says. He kneels beside a stand of cattails at the edge of the pond, watching for a wood duck that is nesting nearby. “I’m just one person. I don’t have the means to do everything that needs to be done, but I‘m doing what I can.”
“Doing what he can” turns out to be very much indeed. His commitment to preservation has rescued thousands of acres of wetlands and forest, and by example he has inspired countless others to follow in his footsteps and to do their part to conserve our fragile environmental heritage. Ward Burton’s contribution to our ecological well-being will stretch far beyond the boundaries of this place. Because of him, because of his quiet determination and his love of the land, many acres across the country will be saved and in a not-so-small way, the world will be a greener, healthier, more peaceful place. It is a greater legacy than all the racing achievements imaginable, and he knows it.
Thirty years ago two roads diverged in the life of a solitary child, and, because he took both the fast track and the country lane, it has made all the difference to Ward Burton himself and to a priceless tract of Virginia wilderness.
Sharyn McCrumb is a New York Times best-selling author from southwest Virginia, whose works include the Ballad novels, celebrating the history and natural wonders of the Southern mountains, and St. Dale, a novel about NASCAR. She is currently co-authoring a non-fiction book with Ward Burton.