Cover Story

Mike Roberts has realized a
dream in his Return to Nature
By Bill Sherrod, Managing Editor

There’s nothing quite like the buzz of an agitated timber rattlesnake to grab your attention.

Mike Roberts sometimes uses a live rattlesnake in his Return to Nature educational programs. It seldom fails to focus the attention of the young students for whom his programs are designed.

Wildlife Picture
Creatures great and small capture the fancy of Mike Roberts, as evidenced in his spectacular wildlife photography.

For Roberts, the effect of the rattler’s buzzing is not terribly unlike the wake-up call that jangled his consciousness nearly 10 years ago and two-thirds the way across the United States. It was a wake-up call that set him on the way down a road that, prior to 1991, he would never have imagined himself traveling.

A lifelong wildlife enthusiast and amateur photographer, Roberts was in Colorado to attend a wildlife-photography seminar conducted by his mentor, world-renowned outdoor photographer Leonard Lee Rue III, back in May 1991.

While in the city, he visited the Denver Museum of Natural History. Twice during his visit, he heard teachers give their students inaccurate information about the wildlife that was depicted in the museum’s displays.

"That night, I lay in a Denver hotel room wide awake, thinking about what I had heard. I couldn’t shake this bad feeling I had about the misinformation given to those children. During that sleepless night, I came to the decision that I would find the means to visit classrooms to expose students and teachers to what I knew about wildlife and conservation of natural resources."

A Bedford County native, Roberts at this time was in the midst of a drafting career at Lynchburg’s Babcock and Wilcox. He had never worked as a teacher nor as a biologist. His knowledge of nature came from the experience he had gained over the years being outdoors.

"When I got back home, I called Lynchburg College and asked to speak to any one of the school’s biology professors. I was connected to Dr. James Carrico. After a brief introduction and conversation, we set up an appointment to meet.

"A few days later, I was sitting in his office explaining what had happened in Denver and the idea I had. I asked him if he thought I was completely off my rocker to consider creating such a program without a formal education at such a late time in life.

"He answered by describing a student he once had. Seems the student was not majoring in biology, but had become quite interested in spiders. Enrolling in his class, the woman became so fascinated with the eight-legged creatures that she even took photography classes to study them more closely. In time, this student became an authority on spiders and soon was conducting seminars all over the country. In fact, her work became so popular that she had to hire a full-time secretary to schedule the sessions. When he had finished the story, I asked Dr. Carrico how this related to my situation. He told me that the woman was 62 years old when she took his class! I walked out of his office with a feeling of genuine purpose, the first I could recall having in my entire life."

Putting Plans into Action

Mike Roberts
Mike Roberts demonstrates turkey calling technique to students at Stuart’s Draft Elementary.

About a year before his watershed trip to Colorado and the Denver Museum of Natural History, Roberts had visited Huddleston Elementary School in Bedford County at the request of Roy Monk, a friend of his and the school’s principal. "He’d asked me if I would come talk about nature, and I gladly agreed. It was fun, and afterwards, he told me I needed to pursue this type of thing," Roberts says.

"I found this especially odd because before I’d always had a fear of speaking in front of groups."

With the added impetus of the purpose imbued within him by Dr. Carrico’s words, Roberts set out in 1991 to begin to bring the message he held dear to schoolchildren across the Old Dominion. The message is simple: We are a part of the environment and as such we have a stewardship responsibility to it.

The program was incorporated by the State Corporation Commission in 1992 and received its IRS tax-exempt status in 1993.

"For about four-and-a-half or five years we did programs around the state, just to get feedback from teachers and principals to see if this is the type of message and kind of program that they wanted. We realized that if the teachers didn’t accept what we were doing, we would not have an audience and the program would die." During this span, Roberts was doing the programs in what spare time he could piece together, on a volunteer basis.

Roberts needn’t have worried about Virginia’s teachers accepting Return to Nature. The response to his program was overwhelming, so much so that, "We couldn’t keep up with the requests for the program," he says. "That’s when we started talking about going full-time with the program," he notes.

That happened in August 2000. He had been doing the program part-time on a purely volunteer basis for eight years by that point. Roberts retired from his job with Babcock and Wilcox and this school year began working full-time as Return to Nature’s executive director. He is assisted by Teresa Craig, director of administration and the only other Return to Nature employee.

"I’ve known Mike since he dreamed up this program more than 10 years ago," notes Craig. She and Roberts met when Craig was setting up a surprise hunting trip to Montana for her husband, Jerry.

Mike Roberts and Theresa Craig
Mike and his assistant Teresa Craig (below), the only Return to Nature Inc. employees, provide the program to schools all across the Commonwealth.

"Teresa keeps things going," notes Roberts. "She keeps everything organized, helps set up my schedule, keeps up correspondence and does the bookkeeping," he adds. Return to Nature is currently operating out of donated office space on the 19th floor of the Wachovia Building on Main Street in Lynchburg. The Wachovia donation is typical of many that have helped propel the program.

"The program has received great support from Virginia’s electric cooperatives, as well as the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, and the Virginia State Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation," Roberts notes.

"The National Wild Turkey Federation is one of the premier wildlife conservation organizations in the country," he adds. "The Virginia State Chapter of the NWTF has been very supportive of Return to Nature. They understand the importance of education to conservation efforts. They were one of the initial supporters."

The organization has an 11-member board of directors. Directors include Del. W.W. "Ted" Bennett, M. John Bowman, Michael Christian, Robert W. "Bob" Duncan, Edgar Garrard, Bob Halstead, Holt Hogan, David McCoy, Winfred Nash, Bill Thomasson, and Dr. Carolyn Wells. Duncan is director of the Wildlife Division of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, and Wells is chairman of the Science Department at Longwood College.

A Balanced Program

John Bowman, executive vice president and general manager of Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative, is an avid sportsman and active member of numerous wildlife organizations, including Ducks Unlimited, Quail Unlimited, and the National Wild Turkey Federation.

"Return to Nature is an extremely valuable program, because it is balanced," notes Bowman. "It brings young people together for the time of the program and presents a balanced view of wildlife conservation ---- the idea is that progress and wildlife conservation are not contradictory terms."

Roberts is particularly well suited to delivering the message to schoolchildren across Virginia, Bowman adds.

"Mike approaches what he is doing with so much enthusiasm that it’s just about impossible to attend one of his programs and not get excited about conservation. I belong to several wildlife conservation organizations, and I can tell you that none of them seem to work as well with young people as Return to Nature. Mike did these programs on a purely volunteer basis for years, and he’s just as enthusiastic today as he was when he first started doing them."

Bob Duncan, director of the Wildlife Division of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, adds that "Return to Nature is probably the best example of conservation education that I have seen. Mike has a wonderful message about renewable resources and wildlife management programs, and he has such genuine enthusiasm for what he is doing ---- enthusiasm born out of his love for wildlife."

Since he began this crusade in 1991, Roberts has carried the message to more than 60,000 schoolchildren across Virginia. This school year alone, since September, he has delivered the message to more than 7,000 schoolchildren.

"We couldn’t be more blessed than to have a fellow like Mike Roberts out there. His message and the way he delivers it leaves children of all ages in awe. We’re delighted to be able to work with him and to be associated with him," Duncan adds. "He’s an absolutely gifted person who is doing such an important job in getting this message out ---- that wildlife, and trees, are renewable resources and that all of these need the proper stewardship."

Ask him why he does what he does, and Roberts will point out the following passage from A Sand County Almanac published in 1949 by Aldo Leopold:


Like winds and sunsets, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them. Now we face the question whether a still higher ‘standard of living’ is worth its cost in the things natural, wild and free. For us of the minority, the opportunity to see geese is more important than television, and the chance to find a pasque-flower is a right as inalienable as free speech.

That’s the whole basis of what this program is all about," Roberts says with a smile. "That’s what Return to Nature is all about."


For more information about the Return to Nature program contact Mike Roberts, executive director, or Teresa Craig, director of administration, at P.O. Box 620, Lynchburg, VA 24505. The phone number is (804) 847-4671; the fax number is (540) 586-5068; and the e-mail address is :


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