Repairing Mother Nature
Leopold Conservation Award Winner J. David Bamberger turns ‘worst ranch in Texas’ into conservation showcase.
By Tom Harvey
J. David Bamberger is visibly emotional as he steps to the podium and surveys the crowd. It is a mountaintop moment after 80 years of life, half of them spent sweating, worrying, persevering and ultimately exulting on his 5,500-acre ranch in Blanco County.
It is May 27, 2009, at the annual Lone Star Land Steward Awards in Austin. Bamberger and his staff are here to receive the Leopold Conservation Award for Texas, the state’s top honor for private land stewardship, bestowed by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the Sand County Foundation. The hotel banquet room is filled with other land stewards past and present, plus TPWD commissioners, staff and many interested others.
Bamberger rests an elbow on the podium and lifts his left hand to his chin, placing one index finger alongside his mouth. He looks out at the crowd, turning his head, scanning the room. The hand and finger are quivering. His eyes are wet. It is a grand culmination, what he calls “a last hurrah.” He has received the principal honor in the awards program he helped create in 1996.
But the moment is bittersweet. His wife and partner, Margaret, who also poured her heart and soul into the ranch for many years, will never savor this moment. She died of cancer two months earlier.
Bamberger begins to speak. Award organizers had planned to show a video about his ranch and work, but this is somehow forgotten as he tells his story.
It is really the same story told across the world in many times and places, one told by and known to everyone in the room. It is the land conservation story, a story about a piece of dirt with trees and grass, water and wildlife. But at its core it is about people, about the lives and hopes and struggles and passions of those who care about these things.
By the time he finishes, there are few dry eyes in the house.
I am rolling along the smooth, paved road through Selah-Bamberger Ranch Preserve in a pickup. Bamberger is driving, showing me the ranch, and while he drives he talks, doing what he does best — delivering the message. Selah, he explains, is a biblical term used in Psalms that invites the reader to “pause and reflect” on the message. Back in the pickup bed is his dog Corye, which stands for Canine Of Red coat and Yellow Eyes.
We round a curve toward The Center, the ranch meeting and lodging space that can sleep 48 and seat 100. On the roadside we roll up on The Bluebonnet, a long covered trailer with bench seats that takes visitors around the ranch. Today it’s filled with Kerrville seventh graders, and they howl and wave as we stop.
Science teacher Peggy Thompson steps up to Bamberger’s open window and introduces her son Andrew, who’s working toward a college degree in conservation. “He’s headed to West Texas to work on a drilling rig for his third summer to pay for school,” Thompson says. “And he’s not going to owe any money when he graduates. I’m so proud of him. Dean’s list — five semesters in a row.”
“Now, listen,” Bamberger tells the young man. “You have a good work ethic and you’re interested in what we’re doing here, so you get back in touch with us. We’re always looking for new help.”
Thompson produces a copy of the book Water from Stone: the Story of Selah-Bamberger Ranch by Jeffrey Greene and pushes it through the truck window for Bamberger’s autograph. “Sign it to Buck and Peggy,” she says. As he signs it, she tells him: “I hope that I’ll be able to bring kids here for many, many years. This is a wonderful experience. You have a fantastic group of people working for you. They honor you.”
When we begin to drive away, the school bus’s driver, Raymond Hardee, steps out into the road. “I been driving this bus out here for years,” he says. “I seen ranches like the Y.O., but this one surpasses them all.” Something about this place has spoken to the bus driver, and he, too, wants to thank Bamberger.
As we park, ranch Executive Director Colleen Gardner rushes up with a question. “Can I clean a toilet and meet you at The Center?” She whisks off and Bamberger frowns and mumbles something about how the director shouldn’t be doing things like that, but I think secretly he’s proud. Earlier he told me, “I hired her right out of the Peace Corps and she is very passionate about everything we do here.”
But now, something about her doing this menial task prompts him to spout one of his many aphorisms. “Never initiate something you can’t sustain,” he says. I think maybe he’s thinking about his staff continuing the work.
Bamberger came to Texas in the 1950s in modest circumstances, selling Kirby vacuum cleaners door-to-door with Bill Church, whose father owned four chicken restaurants in San Antonio. Bamberger read a book on franchising, and suggested the idea to Bill. When Church’s Fried Chicken went public on the New York Stock Exchange in 1969, they became millionaires.
Soon after, Bamberger went looking to buy “the worst ranch in the Hill Country” because he wanted to show how overgrazed and damaged land could be restored and made healthy again by removing invasive cedar trees, replanting native grasses, using light/rotational cattle grazing, prescribed fire and other methods of responsible land management. Four decades later, his innovation, passion and success have made him a legend in land conservation circles. The 5,500-acre ranch is known as a place where rocky, eroded pastures became lush and green and dry creeks and springs began to flow again.
“This ranch is more than a restored, beautiful property in a critical watershed,” Gardner tells me. “It represents how one person can make a difference. It’s what society in general doesn’t hear often enough — good news stories about the environment. This ranch shows Mother Nature can be repaired.”
Some other ranch achievements include:
• Construction of a chiroptorium, or artificial bat cave, now home to some 200,000 Mexican free-tailed bats each summer. This is a site for university research about how bats help pollinate crops and control insect pests.
• Efforts to save an endangered flowering tree called the Texas snowbell, including a greenhouse dedicated to raising the plant. In five years, the ranch planted 682 plants on dozens of other private ranches totaling more than 120,000 acres.
• Cooperative effort with the American Zoological and Aquarium Association to aid an endangered antelope, the African scimitar horned oryx. After 25 years of work, the ranch now helps to restock this animal in Senegal and Gambia.
The Selah-Bamberger Ranch Preserve has used its demonstrated successes as the basis for environmental education and outreach to schools and rural landowners. Hundreds of landowners and other visitors attend workshops on restoring native grasses, trees and water resources. Approximately 3,500 visitors come to the ranch each year, half of whom are schoolchildren from Austin, San Antonio and the surrounding region.
For example, donations and grant funds have been used to transport students from Metz and Pickle elementary schools in Austin to the ranch, where students are engaged in hands-on science learning. “After two years of going to Bamberger Ranch, student science scores improved by 30 percentage points from around 52 to 81,” says Joel de la Garza, principal of Pickle Elementary and former principal of Metz Elementary.
“I’m not saying it was only the ranch tours, but I do believe the hands-on experiences at the ranch were an important reason for the improvement in scores,” de la Garza says. “Just being able to be in the outdoors for students who normally live in the city and don’t have those experiences, seeing land formations and biological systems — it’s just awesome. It’s an eye-opener for those kids and very, very positive. They’ll remember those things for life.”
Sitting in his office, Bamberger and I look out a big picture window onto a splendid scene of green grass and trees. A splash of blue water in the distance marks a pond, and the round tops of hills curve along the horizon. These hills are the focus of Bamberger’s latest brainstorm, a five-year project to catch and hold rainwater in “perched aquifers.” He shows me photos of low, white limestone walls curving in terraced rows around the tops and sides of hills on the ranch.
I ask Bamberger to pause and reflect on 40 years of achievement. What’s the biggest thing, the most important thing, I ask.
“Our most important achievement is the model we have established for many, many other landowners to follow,” Bamberger says. “I show people that grass on the ground is the most important, least expensive and quickest-responding conservation measure that one can do.”
“This was a piece of land that nobody wanted. It was almost un-saleable. We’ve cleared over 3,000 acres of wall-to-wall cedar. We planted over $25,000 of native grass seed, which is a lot. I don’t recommend that to people anymore. It doesn’t take a lot of money to restore the land, to do conservation. Anyone can do this. It just takes work, commitment and determination.”
Later, on a ranch tour for news media, Bamberger explains that people can walk along rural roadsides in fall, find native grasses still growing where the ground hasn’t been plowed and run their hands up the stems, harvesting all the seeds they need.
“We started with 48 bird species year-round here and have dramatically increased bird diversity as plant diversity and land health improved,” Bamberger says. “Now we are up to 215 bird species.”
He leads the tour group past a pond fed by the new perched aquifer project. About halfway up the hill, he turns a faucet connected to the hilltop aquifer and clear water gushes out. “Over these 40 years, as the habitat was improved, we got 11 springs and two creeks that started to flow again. We have 22 ponds that weren’t here when I came. Two of them we call lakes because of their significant size. When we first started, it took 41 acres to support one animal unit. Now it takes 18.”
Listen to J. David Bamberger talk about the ranch in his own words. (Excerpted from Texas Parks and Wildlife's Passport to Texas Radio Program.)
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As we ascend the hill, Bamberger tells tour participants they don’t need a health club to stay fit, just hard work. The example he sets seems proof enough, as he charges nimbly up the rocky trail.
“Water is the most important issue in Texas today,” he says in a TV interview that day. “Our goal here is to maximize rainfall by holding it on the ranch long enough for it to percolate down into the aquifer without running off. How the rancher out here in the country manages his land determines how well the Edwards Aquifer holds up.”
Later in the interview, he shares another guiding principle: “I have a lifelong philosophy that nothing great was ever accomplished without enthusiasm.” Then, he proceeds to demonstrate enthusiasm. Standing on the breezy hilltop, Bamberger waves his arms up and down and shouts like a tent-revival preacher. “Anybody can do this! Preach the gospel! Oh my God, what we can do! Oh, hallelujah, brother! Conservation for everybody!”
More information about the Lone Star Land Steward Awards, including how to nominate property owners for awards, is online at www.tpwd.state.tx.us/landsteward. Nominations are accepted June 1–Nov. 30.