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Planting Earnhardt's forest: everyone knew the legendary NASCAR driver as "The Intimidator." Off the track, he had a quiet passion for the outdoors.

To many, Dale Earnhardt was the consummate athlete: cold, poker eyes hidden behind dark glasses, dedication and drive beyond any of his competitors, a winner's instinct and immeasurable prowess on the track. Yet to those who knew him personally, Earnhardt was not always "The Intimidator," ready to speed past you for the lead. Outside the racecar, his eyes were no longer so harsh; he smiled and joked. When competition was over, he no longer assumed the iron persona necessary for a winner.

While his racing successes ensured his legacy on the track, perhaps less known is his legacy off it as an avid sportsman and conservationist. Among Earnhardt's many passions was a keen love of deer hunting, fishing, and recreational activities. He loved the outdoors and he loved nature--and he loved his hometown near Charlotte, North Carolina.


"There's no pressure on me when I'm in a race car," the late Earnhardt once said. "That's when I'm relaxed. That's the best time of my life." Clearly, for those who knew him, this was true. But if racing was Earnhardt's public love, the outdoors were his respite. How else could you explain a man who shaved his trademark moustache to enjoy scuba diving? Along with the thrill of racing comes the agony of bumps, bruises and exposure to intense heat. And though Earnhardt was an iron man, even he needed time for rejuvenation.

Growing up, Earnhardt had learned to race cars and work hard. And he learned to respect nature, the way you respect all people and things that give much and ask only a little in return.


"Dale spent time outdoors every chance he could," his wife Teresa recalls. Hunting and fishing with his children "ensured that they understood the significance of what they were doing. He wanted them to have respect for the outdoors as he did."


"From early on, I thought I understood hunting and fishing," Earnhardt once said. "I guess it is a lot like when you start racing. You don't really see and understand the whole picture. You think you are there just to have fun and race.

"When a person begins hunting and fishing it's the same way. As you grow in hunting, as in racing, you begin to understand the entire game. You finally realize that if you shoot everything, there will be nothing left. Then you begin hunting for quality, and you take only enough for that day so you don't deplete the stock."


Despite his fame, Earnhardt chose to spend time with his family and friends and leave his legend alone. Dale's favorite spot to get away from it all, Teresa says, was their farm in Iredell County, North Carolina. "With over 300 acres of rejuvenated farmland, it was an environmentalist's dream." Fertile fields produced crops and wildlife and nature had top priority. Unharvested lands provided food for the wildlife. "Whether it was being on his tractor or walking on foot, Dale loved what the solitude of this area offered him," she says.

Earnhardt, who was knowledgeable about trees, was active in the development of the property, helping with the planting of many trees and ensuring that a forested area was left for wildlife, she adds.

"The farm is my pressure release," Earnhardt once said. "Sometimes I walk all over the place by myself, and other times I walk out into the woods and sit down with my back against a tree and listen to tree frogs, katydids, bluebirds, and I watch other forms of wildlife. I get a kick out of seeing what is going on around me."


When Earnhardt died, the record of his achievements locked into place; the legend of a humble boy-made-American hero solidified in the hearts and minds of millions across the country and world. But although he died young, at age 49, Earnhardt died doing what he loved.

And he had already shown, in his quieter moments, that success could be used for furthering good causes. Much of his giving was done in private. When he gave money, he consistently chose charitable organizations that supported nature, children, and education. Instead of basking in the sun of his success, he funded organizations that made the community stronger and created promise for the future. Teresa, Dale's wife of 19 years, founded the Dale Earnhardt Foundation in 2002 to continue supporting the good causes Dale supported during his life.


This past April, during the third annual Dale Earnhardt Day, the Dale Earnhardt Foundation announced a partnership with AMERICAN FORESTS, one inspired by Earnhardt's interest in environmental conservation. "Dale had a longstanding commitment to the conservation of natural resources," Teresa says. "This wonderful program will help fulfill his dream."

Together the groups agreed upon an initial plan to plant 77,000 trees in Charlotte and neighboring counties; 7,000 of the trees are destined for city streets and 70,000 for rivers and waterways. The number "7" is important and symbolic for Earnhardt fans. It represents Dale's seven Winston Cup victories, spanning his 26 years of racing the black Chevrolet. On the day of the ceremony, the Dale Earnhardt Foundation and AMERICAN FORESTS planted seven trees in honor of Dale's wins. Those first seven trees are located on Dale Earnhardt Highway #3 at Dale Earnhardt, Inc. headquarters in Mooresville, North Carolina.

"We have hundreds of trophies, memorabilia, and videos of Dale's legacy on the track," Teresa Earnhardt explains. "His legend as an extraordinary racecar driver has been documented and will be a part of history forever. What people don't know is the man who understood the importance of nature preservation.


"He loved nature. He loved the environment. By planting trees, hopefully his legacy as an environmentalist will, through this program, also become historical."

Dale Earnhardt Day, Dale's birthday, was chosen for the unveiling because that's when "we get your true, loyal fan [visiting the headquarters]--one who admired Dale and who knew everything about him," Teresa says. "His true fans all knew that Dale was an outdoorsman, so for them it was a natural partnership. This was a partnership that they could visualize happening while Dale was alive."

The appeal of the initiative reaches far and wide. For Dale's family and friends, it meshes all Dale's interests into one giant drive for greening the urban community. And although the plan starts in Charlotte, its expansion to other cities will boost Dale's legacy and touch the lives of people who live and work in other urban centers.

The announcement came on the heels of a study conducted by AMERICAN FORESTS for Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. Mecklenburg County totals 351,000 acres; 53 percent of that is tree-covered, though this number is decreasing rapidly. AMERICAN FORESTS found that in the years 1984 to 2001, Mecklenburg County lost 22 percent of its tree cover while impervious surfaces increased by 127 percent. These trends were alarming enough to motivate the Dale Earnhardt Foundation to hammer out a tree-planting solution.

Replanting trees decreases air pollution because trees remove pollutants through their natural cycle. Mecklenburg's trees remove 17.5 million pounds of pollutants from the surrounding environment each year, according to a 2003 AMERICAN FORESTS report. These trees save Mecklenburg $43.8 million in air-purification costs.

But with continuing development south of Charlotte in the towns of Pineville and Matthews and around the finished portions of I-485 Outerbelt, many trees are in danger of being cut. While AMERICAN FORESTS hopes its report will enforce the benefits of trees, more trees need to be planted to ensure a healthy atmosphere for the future.

As well as the plantings, AMERICAN FORESTS will provide approximately 700 city schools in 15 counties with its CITYgreen software and environmental lesson plans. AMERICAN FORESTS will personally train the teachers in implementing the software and educating today's Carolina youth in the groundbreaking program. When more funding is brought in, the groups plan to expand this "greening initiative" to all 19 of the states where Dale raced.


The Dale Earnhardt Foundation itself provided a generous initial grant for the Charlotte plantings. "This initial grant to AMERICAN FORESTS," Teresa Earnhardt said at the announcement, "is ... a way to kick-start the planning process and encourage other corporations and charitable foundations to lend their financial support." Total costs are estimated at around $2.8 million.

People aren't the only ones who benefit from trees. Around the Charlotte area, direct beneficiaries of the plantings include the red wolf, flying squirrel, black bear, and bald eagle. Trees planted along rivers prove a boon for reducing pollution into precious waterways, helping tundra swans, Appalachian elktoe mussels, and spotfin chubs, along with other fish and waterfowl. Trees' roots, in turn, strengthen banks and shores, holding runny soil from spilling into the river.

"Dale Earnhardt was a champion race car driver, but he was also a champion of the environment. His love of the outdoors, especially hunting and fishing, is something he shared with the members of AMERICAN FORESTS," says association executive director Deborah Gangloff. The conservation movement in this country, she points out, was initially supported by hunters and fishermen concerned about the conservation of species and habitat to ensure the availability of game for future generations.


"Our work with the Foundation brings AMERICAN FORESTS back to its roots," Gangloff adds. "Restoring the health of local ecosystems, we believe, is fitting tribute to Dale's memory."


The partnership between the Dale Earnhardt Foundation and AMERICAN FORESTS, formally announced on April 29, 2004, will plant 77,000 trees to restore local forests damaged by storm, disease, neglect, and development in the Charlotte, North Carolina metropolitan area. In addition, AMERICAN FORESTS will work with schools throughout the metropolitan region to bring its CITYgreen environmental education tool to the approximately 700 schools in the region's 15 counties.

Charlotte and the surrounding area, an important regional center for the financial industry, is growing rapidly because of a high quality of life and growing economy. With that growth, however, has come an alarming loss in its urban forest. That loss was described in a recent report by AMERICAN FORESTS' Urban Forest Center (for a PDF copy of the report, click on

An expanded urban forest in the Charlotte area would enhance quality of life by providing residents with important services such as stormwater retention, air and water filtration, and insulation from summer heat build-up due to increasing asphalt and concrete. By joining AMERICAN FORESTS and the Dale Earnhardt Foundation in planting trees in the racecar legend's memory, fans will help further Earnhardt's personal commitment to conservation and to children's environmental education.

As funding is secured, additional plantings are planned in each of the 19 Winston Cup states in which Earnhardt raced. In addition to helping to restore local forests and greenways, the program will seek to incorporate opportunities for community involvement and environmental education, which will promote learning about conservation and local environmental issues.

Fans who would like to contribute to Dale's legacy can plant an E-tree in the Dale Earnhardt Forest. For more details on purchasing an E-tree, visit AMERICAN FORESTS' website at or call 800/320-8733.

Yale senior Will Clattenburg interned in American Forests' publications department this past summer.
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Title Annotation:Dale Earnhardt
Author:Clattenburg, Will
Publication:American Forests
Geographic Code:1U5NC
Date:Jun 22, 2004
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