Selah, Bamberger Ranch redux: After a visit to demonstration ranch south of Johnson City last fall ("Day Trips," Oct. 12, austinchronicle.com/issues/dispatch/2001-10-12/cols_daytrips.html ), a return trip this spring was more than twice the education. What was once the worst piece of land in Blanco County now exemplifies the beauty of the Hill Country.
Other than the rolling hills and the deep washes, the area southwest of Austin hardly resembles the land that settlers found when they arrived with their cattle. Instead of evergreen ash juniper bushes (cedars) growing everywhere, there were fields of grass. According to Dr. Lew Hunnicutt, the ranch manager, the old-timers told stories of the grass growing as high as a horse's belly.
Long-steam, side oats gamma, and other grasses covered the thin, rocky soil, preventing erosion and crowding out the thirsty woody plants. Texas is a land of perpetual drought broken by an occasional flood, Dr. Hunnicutt says, and the trees drink more than their share of the scarce resource. The doctor of agriculture has found more than 100 different kinds of grasses on the 5,500-acre ranch.
When the settlers overgrazed the land and eliminated fire from the ecosystem, they altered the natural cycle of life. What was once a land that could sustain a wide variety of flora and fauna was reduced to inhospitable conditions. It is a situation that continues to exist.
After a college teaching career, Dr. Hunnicutt's classroom is now on a patio overlooking Madrone Lake where he preaches the gospel of good land management. Using a homemade rain simulation machine, he illustrates the difference between a storm on a field of grass and a field of ash juniper. After a few minutes the proof was in the bottles under the trays holding the samples of land conditions. Nearly all of the gallon of "rain" released on the tree filled the runoff jar with muddy water. Under the grassland sample about the same amount of much clearer water slowly drained into a jar labeled "aquifer."
The subject of land stewardship should be of interest to everyone even if they don't have a pot to plant in. Folks downstream from the ranch are happy that someone is keeping Miller Creek running into the Blanco River. In the past several years, the river where the town of Blanco get its drinking water has gone nearly dry. Instead of drilling new and deeper wells, the town should look at reviving the area's creeks like David Bamberger did.
The story of J. David Bamberger has reached legendary proportions across the state. The son of Midwestern farmers, he left home to make his living selling Kirby vacuum cleaners. He ultimately made his fortune building Church's Fried Chicken into a household name. More than 30 years ago he started his natural science experiment. The result is Selah, a ranch and a word that comes from the Bible meaning to stop and reflect on the message being delivered. Forget seeing the dinosaur tracks, or the wild turkeys running across the road, it is inspirational just being on the ranch.
Although they both have more vitality than some people half their age, Bamberger and his wife Margaret are up into their seventies and beginning to slow down. Trying to practice their mantra of never initiating any action that they can't sustain, whether it is cutting down the ash junipers or planting grass seeds, they went looking to give the ranch away. Environmental groups wouldn't take the ranch because they couldn't afford to maintain it. A salesman's salesman, Bamberger's inability to give away 5,500 acres of prime cattle land made the nightly news.
To solve an enviable problem, Bamberger formed the Bamberger Ranch Preserve Foundation to maintain the land for perpetuity. While the ranching operation is self-sustaining, the educational programs will never earn enough to support the necessary staff. As a tax-deductible, nonprofit organization, Bamberger hopes the foundation will broaden the outreach to more ranchers, school children, and interested individuals.
Drop-in visitors to the Bamberger Ranch aren't allowed because this is a working agricultural business with a small staff. The best way to see the ranch -- and they do like to show it off -- is by joining one of the workshops scheduled during the year. If the $90 registration fee is a little much, the next public tours are scheduled for September 14. Go to the Web site, www.bambergerranch.org, to get registration information. These tours fill up quickly, so for the experience of a lifetime, do it soon. Some people have waited more than two years for an opportunity to visit and weren't disappointed. Going back, the experience just keeps getting better.
570th in a series. Day Trips, Vol. 2, a book of Day Trips 101-200, is available for $8.95, plus $3.05 for shipping, handling, and tax. Mail to: Day Trips, PO Box 33284, South Austin, TX 78704.