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TEACH ON THE WILD SIDE

South Boston NewsSouth Boston News
Top, Mike Roberts of the Ward Burton Foundation talks about the outdoors with students at Clarksville Elementary School. Above, retired NASCAR driver Ward Burton of South Boston.
SoVaNow.com / January 16, 2019


Since his retirement as a race car driver at NASCAR’s highest levels, Ward Burton’s name has been synonymous with another of his passions: environmental stewardship. Tuesday in Clarksville, Burton was on hand as the Ward Burton Wildlife Foundation rolled out its latest environmental initiative, a conservation history program for area public school students in grades three-five.

On Tuesday, Burton and Mike Roberts visited Clarksville Elementary School to teach kids about the importance of nature through a hands-on program that educates future generations on wildlife and habitat conservation.

Roberts, a naturalist and wildlife photographer who serves as the moderator for the program, said their mission in the schools is to “connect kids to the reality of the environment — clean air, pure water, shelter and space and our stewardship responsibility with the environment. It’s not just consumptive conservation we are concerned about, it’s also the non-game species. So, when you manage land for consumptive wildlife, you are managing it for all the species.”

Roberts said the reason they are focused on the students is because “the one place you can reach people who are disconnected from the great outdoors is through the classroom.”

For 90 minutes, Roberts hooted and gobbled and jumped around to keep the kids entertained and learning about America’s conservation history, which he explained is a sad history. Along the way, students also learned about reforestation, wildlife habitats, and the importance of native vegetation.

As students looked on at a variety of animal pelts and preserved animals, Roberts explained the legacy of the European settlers who came to America with a mindset of agriculture. “They cleared the forests, which destroyed wildlife habitats,” Roberts said, adding that “by the late 1800s most of our wildlife was gone. White-tailed deer would have been an endangered species 100 years ago had we had an Endangered Species Act. There are more deer in North America today than when the Europeans landed on the shores primarily because of legislation, sportsmen’s organizations and concern for our wildlife. That goes not only with deer, but also wild turkey, black bear, elk, prong-horned or big-horned sheep, you name it. “

Students watched as Burton and Roberts unloaded a life-sized, white-tailed deer, turkey, owl, fox, black bear and more from their traveling classroom. For many of the students, this was the closest they’ve come to these denizens of the local forests.

Watching Roberts’ presentation from the rear of the auditorium at Clarksville Elementary School, Burton smiled as he saw the students’ positive response to Roberts’ talk. The next step, Burton said, is to “get kids outdoors to learn about the fascinating things there are. It’s all around us. It’s our culture.”

Roberts said he and Burton are lockstep in their views on the importance of conservation education; he described the significance of the program thusly: “This is about all wildlife and stewardship. Our goal is to connect [the students] to the beauty and importance of [wildlife and conservation] and that way it enhances their desire to see the environment. Once they learn about it, they start to care for it and love it. Once they love it, they will care for it.”

The Ward Burton Wildlife Foundation, which owns around 8,000 acres in Halifax County for use as an outdoor classroom, is doing its part to enhance Roberts’ classroom lessons with actual hands-on experiences. They offer education in the field through Project Prothonotary, a wildlife initiative implemented in 2017 to study the nesting habits of the Prothonotary Warbler, a bird that nests along Buggs Island Lake and the marshes upstream on the Staunton River, as well as programs about plant and animal identification, wildlife conservation and management methods, habitat enhancement, and land-use ethics. This past summer they hosted eight groups of students at their site in Halifax County.

Still, Burton says more needs to be done: It is up to parents and other mentors to take kids outside and show them the beauty that exists.

Tuesday marked the kickoff of the classroom program, which will take Roberts and Burton into 30 schools throughout Region 8 schools in southern and central Virginia. When they’re done, Roberts said he expects they will have reached between 6,000 and 7,000 students. On Jan. 23, Burton and Roberts will be bringing the program to Halifax County, starting at Clays Mill Elementary.

Ultimately, Burton and Roberts want to share their lessons with every student in the region in hopes of inspiring some to take up careers in forestry, wildlife management and related professions.

Roberts said he is not daunted by the task ahead. Several years ago, before he joined the Ward Burton Wildlife Foundation, he developed a similar education program through his Return to Nature nonprofit that reached over 300,000 kids in Virginia and Indiana.

In 1995, after winning his first NASCAR Winston Cup victory at Rockingham Speedway, Burton decided to create a foundation focused on wildlife conservation. It was the first foundation created by a NASCAR driver. “The outdoors had always been a big part of my life. So, I spoke with an official at [the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries] and friends at US Fish and Wildlife. I didn’t know anything about a foundation, but knew I wanted to give back to natural resources. They influenced me. Little did I know that 20-plus years later it would have created a life of its own. It’s like one of my children,” said Burton.

Today, in addition to this new conservation history program, the Ward Burton Wildlife Foundation offers a broad range of programs focused on sustaining the natural environment, including environmental education through 4-H clubs, Boy and Girls Scouts, landowners, the timber industry and others. The foundation’s Army Compatible Use Buffer program helps the military fortify its national defense efforts, and the American Hero Program provides veterans and wounded warriors with access to therapeutic outdoor activities alongside kindred spirits.

As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, Burton said the organization must raise funds to keep its mission going. Anyone interested in supporting the Ward Burton Wildlife Foundation can contact the foundation by calling 434-476-7038, texting WBWF to 71777 or going online to http://www.twbwf.org.

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