Ward Burton - Champion Conservationist

Article By Mike Roberts

On the southern side of the little, laid-back town of South Boston, Virginia, near the railroad tracks crossing US 501, there stands an inconspicuous road sign that reads, “Home of Ward Burton - 2002 Daytona 500 Winner.” And that’s how folks residing in the Southside of our Commonwealth remember their native son. For sure, Ward was one of those successful weekend warriors dedicated to the profession; and a NASCAR fan favorite. Even though Burton’s profession was driving cars 200 mph, his passion in life has always been the great outdoors.

            Understanding the evolution of Ward’s appreciation for the natural environment requires flipping through the pages of his childhood. Like many youngsters who grew up in rural Virginia during the 1960s, without the distractions of technology and social media, he spent after school hours “conquering the wilderness” behind his home - with a mother’s approval, of course.

            More importantly, with a father heavily engaged in the family’s construction firm, Ward whiled away remaining time with his retired grandfather, John Edward Burton, Sr. - an outdoor writer for the

Richmond Times Dispatch. As a mentor, the elder Burton exposed his grandson to a world of shotguns, skeet shooting, duck hunting, fishing, and gardening. Although his

grandfather owned and trained upland bird dogs and Labrador retrievers, Ward came along too late to experience the “good ole days” of Virginia’s quail bonanza; hunting was primarily focused on waterfowl. In retrospect, it’s easy to see why the outdoors became engrained in the boy’s heart and soul.  

            At around age 10, Ward came to know another man who would greatly influence his future - Mr. C. R. Sanders, a Purple Heart recipient who fought in the Korean War. Sanders owned 1,100 areas that bordered the Staunton River in northern Halifax County and permitted young Burton and some of his friends to spend their summer days and weekends there “living off the land.” A log-structured, tobacco barn provided shelter; drinking water came from a small stream that flowed through the forest a hundred yards or so from the barn. Naturally, the youngster fell in love with the “Cove.”

            Historically, the Cove was used for agricultural purposes - primarily cattle and supplemental crops of hay, corn, and tobacco. It’s once fertile river bottoms had long been overgrazed, and the fields’ red, clay soil eroded and sterile. Although Sanders was not a true conservationist, he purposefully ended all farming practices on the land, which initiated natural reclamation. With an increasing population of beavers engineering dams that blocked hand-dug drain ditches, miles of bottomlands were transformed into wetlands; open fields were soon dominated by successional plant growth and shrubs. In a matter of time the farm was converted into a fantastic ecosystem that supported a diverse community of plants and animals. And that’s the way it remained for over 40 years.

            The only constant in life is constant change and so it was with both Ward Burton and his beloved Cove. With parents concerned about their son’s future, they enrolled the free-spirited youngster in Hargrave Military Academy. And while Ward’s passion for the outdoors never waned, involvement in the world of racing go-karts sent him down a new path of interest. Because of a highly competitive nature, strict work ethics, and accomplishments on local, short tracks, the young man eventually landed a ride during the peak of NASCAR’s popularity.

            On the other hand, the continuity of the Cove was in danger of being lost forever. With Sanders’ health in decline, foreclosure loomed. Luckily, and just in the nick of time, Burton stepped up to the plate and took emergency measures to purchase the land that had been his safe space. Even though Ward never considered himself a paragon of conservation virtue, in time and through hands-on experience, he became a steward and voice for the natural components of the Cove; owing the means of acquisition to success in racing. During the early years, it was all about sweat equity and personal dollars. Later, as the first NASCAR driver to create a non-profit foundation, Ward enrolled the Cove in a conservation easement, thus providing the land with permanent protection from future encroachment. 

            One of the first lessons Ward learned as a budding conservationist dealt with the management of the Cove’s forestlands. After harvesting a particular stand of timber to assist with the initial purchase, he soon began to notice a marked increase in wildlife activity within that area’s successional growth. The key to enhancing the Cove’s wildlife habitat was managing various age-groups of trees required by a multitude of animal species, large and small, for food sources, thermal cover, and escaping predators.

            For sure, the success of any natural resource conservation project is dependent upon the landowner’s personal motivation. Yet, Ward is quick to give credit to state and federal agencies, and their employees, saying, “It’s all about creating relationships - especially with trained professionals who can provide a wealth of science-based knowledge and are familiar with grants and other available funding.” Through the years those relationships have included the Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) and the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS).

            When it comes to the Cove’s forest management plan, the VDOF has been a critical  source of information and advice regarding proven methods of harvest and replanting. That being said, Ward believes the single most effective practice advocated by the agency is prescribed burning, which controls competitive plant life and augments the growth of conifers by releasing nutrients back into the soil. One of the agency’s major contributions to the Ward Burton Wildlife Foundation (WBWF) was exposing the non-profit organization to funding through the Forest Legacy Program and at a critical point in time.      

            Because water is a cornerstone element of quality wildlife habitat, Ward reached out to NRCS for guidance in building impoundments, enhancing wetlands, and seeking financial assistance for such projects. As a result of this ongoing alliance, and participation in the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP), the Cove has an abundance of water to support a diversified population of plants and animals, including Neo-tropical migrants like the Prothonotary warbler - a habitat-specific passerine dependent upon flooded timber; and wetlands essential to waterfowl during spring and autumn migrations. Ward now understands conservation is much more than sowing food plots and installing wood duck boxes, and that such plans require time to develop. The good news, these habitat enhancements are available to all landowners, regardless of acreage, through a number of federal, cost-sharing programs. Having learned such lessons through experience, Ward Burton offers his expertise to others; it’s just another avenue of giving back to the natural environment he respects and cherishes.            

           Then there is the ever evolving task of managing the Cove’s wildlife, which is at the mercy of weather extremes, predators, and disease. Realizing no single type of habitat is the answer to successful management, Ward continues to provide game species, primarily white-tailed deer, black bear, wild turkey, and Northern bobwhite, with agricultural type food sources, edge habitat, old field successional plant growth, and forests with distinct age groups of mixed hardwoods and pines. An older and wiser Burton often declares, “Our food plots are not a thing of beauty, but provide optimum benefits for the creatures living here.” A multitude of species, including pollinators and their host plants, reptiles, amphibians, non-game mammals, and resident and migratory birds are beneficiaries, as well.

            Over the years Ward has experimented with many types of food sources to maximize nutrition for the Cove’s deer, including a variety of clovers, alfalfa, cow peas, millet, sorghum, corn, fall oats, winter wheat, and mixtures of root vegetables like radish and turnips. Knowing the white-tailed deer’s diet includes the widest range of plants consumed by any herbivore, he continues to offer a buffet of plant foods. While a few of these high-protein plant sources are considered drought resistant, most are susceptible to the lack of rainfall.

            These days, with over 3,000 acres of fantastic habitat, and an abundance of deer and turkey, there is no shortage of predators roaming the Cove. As black bears and coyotes continue to thrive, fawn recruitment is a concern. While bear are primarily opportunistic feeders, coyotes target fawns - especially during those critical, first two weeks of their lives. Bobcats, too, occasionally kill fawns, but likely less than coyotes. Nest raiding raccoons, skunks, and opossums are a bigger threat to wild turkey populations than are the larger carnivores. While predators are an ever-present element within all healthy ecosystems, controlling them to maintain somewhat of a balance is part of the Cove’s wildlife management strategy.

Like whitetails throughout Virginia, the Cove’s deer are susceptible to disease and parasites. To a wildlife manager, few things are more frustrating than having watched bucks survive to maturity only to discover several of them dead in a stream or pond. Sadly, this is a very real part of deer management these days. Drought and temperature extremes during August and early September increase the animals’ hydration needs - thus attracting them to water sources and the presence of an insect in the genus Culicoides or, in layman terms, biting midges. These "no-see-ums" are the vector of a virus known as Epizootic

Hemorrhagic Disease (EHD or simply HD). And while some biologists believe deer eventually build up an immunity, the only  means of control is freezing temperatures that kill the adult insects. To date, and thankfully, Chronic Wasting Disease has not been recorded in Southeastern Virginia. Then there is the Cove’s consumptive conservation aspect - sport hunting. Bottomline, only mature bucks are on the hit list. And while it is not always easy to identify animals 4-1/2 years and older, the Burtons keep tabs on age structure through the use of trail cams. During the 2019 season, Ward pulled the trigger on a huge buck that was 7-1/2 years old. Fact being, that ole fellow’s antlers were in decline - having only six points. Regardless, he was a genuine trophy buck. That was the first antlered deer Ward had harvested in over a decade; his attention has been keenly focused on controlling the doe population.

     On the other hand, Ward’s oldest son, Jeb, and his wife Brandi, are diehard, modern day whitetail enthusiasts. If they are not installing cameras to monitor deer activity, they are looking for antlers or videoing behavior for their TV show (Crossroads With the Burtons) and social media outlets. In Jeb’s case, the apple did not fall far from the tree - in both racing and hunting. Outside of banging fenders in NASCAR’s Xfinity Series, the young man is either chasing race sponsors, whitetails, spring gobblers, or waterfowl. As part of a younger generation of sportsmen, Jeb constantly researches food sources beneficial to the deer's

health and antler production; and new products associated with the sport of deer hunting. And not to be overlooked is the fact that the WBWF delights in introducing youngsters to the world of hunting and fishing. From that perspective, the Cove’s future remains bright!

     The Ward Burton Wildlife Foundation has several distinct organizational entities besides the Cove. One such component is the Army Compatible Use Buffer Program (ACUB) - a federal program designed to protect military bases used to train troops vital to our national security. The WBWF is the primary partner that manages cooperative agreements for participating landowners, who benefit from either conservation easements, deed restrictions, or outright sales. Working with Fort Pickett, near Blackstone, Virginia, and Fort Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania, to date, the foundation has protected over 30,000 acres from encroachment. 

 Regarding those lands obtained through simple-fee purchases, the WBWF assumes responsibility for managing the forestlands and enhancing wildlife habitat. In addition, some of the sites are used for youth outreach and veteran appreciation events. To the delight of sportsmen in the Blackstone area, over 2,500 acres are leased out to hunting clubs. In summary, ACUB is a win-win deal for the training facilities, the WBWF, landowners, local communities, the integrity of rural landscapes, and the natural environment.

          Another important sector of the Ward Burton Wildlife Foundation is its outreach programming. While the foundation has long used the Cove as an outdoor classroom to educate students, teachers, and landowners about nature and natural resource stewardship, two years ago the board of directors, with Ward’s blessing, mandated the “Next Generation” Program to travel to classrooms across Virginia. Part of the programming deals with science SOL materials (the white-tailed deer’s natural history is an ideal subject to teach many of those requirements). The other section includes America’s 400-year natural resource history - including abundance, its loss, and restoration. Every student attending one of these programs has the opportunity to learn about the North American Wildlife Conservation Model, which includes landmark legislative decisions, such as the Pittman-Robertson Act, and why sportsmen are considered the original conservationists.

            During the 2018-19 school year the foundation conducted programs for nearly 20,000 students in Regions 7 and 8. The first three months of the 2019-2020 school-year introduced almost 8,000 students in the Tidewater area to the reality of natural resource stewardship. A portion of the monetary support for WBWF outreach education comes from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and the Virginia Forestry Educational Foundation. Jeb Burton’s racing sponsors, such as LS Tractor and State Water Heaters, also contribute to keep the outreach program’s wheels turning.

            Of all the people I have been associated with in life, no one strives harder to enhance our natural resources than Ward Burton - and without one penny of monetary compensation! In my opinion, that has earned my friend the title of “Champion Conservationist.”                

For more information contact:   www.wardburtonwildlife.org