Chaperone duty during my kids’ school field trips over the years has taken me to some interesting places. But last Monday it got me in on a private tour of the esteemed Selah, Bamberger Ranch, a privately owned nature preserve of 5,500 acres in the Texas Hill Country near Johnson City.
J. David Bamberger, having made his fortune in vacuum sales and as co-founder of Church’s Chicken, purchased the ranch in 1969 to fulfill a lifelong dream of restoring habitat to “the sorriest piece of land” he could find in the Texas Hill Country. Smothered in water-sucking Ashe junipers (known locally as cedars), lacking any springs, creeks, or ponds, unusable for cattle ranching or farming, the property was dirt cheap and dirt poor. It was just what Bamberger was looking for.
He tried to drill for water but failed to find any. So he started chopping out the thirsty cedar brakes and replacing them with native grasses (back when native grass seed was extremely difficult to find). Other native grasses whose seeds had lain dormant in the soil returned when the junipers were cleared.
And then an amazing thing happened. Water appeared. Dried-up springs and seeps came back to life, and now the headwaters of burbling Miller Creek originate on the ranch.
The grasses (and the accompanying woodland-edge habitat where grass meets forest) introduced an important new habitat for wildlife, especially birds. Bird surveys of the ranch from 30 years ago found fewer than 50 species. Today, according to Selah’s website, 188 species of birds are documented on the ranch, including the bald eagle, golden eagle, and two endangered songbirds, the golden-cheeked warbler and black-capped vireo.
Bamberger maintains the property as a working ranch to cover expenses. But he and the board of directors are building an endowment fund to preserve the ranch in perpetuity as a nature preserve, without commercialization.
One of the rustic ranch buildings
As our group toured the ranch on this warm, late-February morning with executive director Colleen Gardner, I could hardly imagine the property as it once was, arid and thickety with cedars. Water was flowing steadily and had been pooled into numerous small ponds along the hiking trails.
Coppery grasses rattled in the breeze.
Ranch biologist Steve Fulton explained to us how important grasses are to the health of the water supply. They slow down runoff, prevent erosion, and filter water so that it can seep into the soil and recharge the aquifer.
Hiking the nature trails, we enjoyed a bit of late fall color. Even though spring is right around the corner, the ranch still wore the copper and tan hues of autumn.
Split-open seedpods of Mexican buckeye (Ungnadia speciosa)
I was excited to spot the distinctive smooth, mahogany trunks of a Texas madrone (Arbutus xalapensis). When I mentioned to Colleen that I’d never even come across this tree at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, which showcases native plants from the Austin area, including the Hill Country, she told me that the Center once collected a madrone from Bamberger Ranch, but it didn’t survive. Update 11/26/11: There are at least two Texas madrones growing at the Wildflower Center near the Erma Lowe Hill Country Stream.
Texas madrone is, it seems, rather finicky and dependent on very localized habitat. For more information about this rare tree, click for an interesting article on Texas madrone by Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine.
While Selah’s purpose is conservation and education, for tax purposes and meeting expenses the preserve is also a working ranch with some cattle. Ranch operations manager Scott Grote and his daughter, Willow, who was on a school holiday herself, gave us a lesson in cowboying.
Willow—the envy, perhaps, of all the young girls on the tour.
Colleen and Easter, one of the ranch dogs. Colleen was trying to distract Easter, who’d been carrying sticks over to us in hopes of a game of fetch.
Texas sotol (Dasylirion texanum)
Selah, Colleen explained, is a biblical term from the Book of Psalms that means “pause and reflect.” J. David Bamberger thought it a fitting name for the conservation work he’d dedicated his life to. Selah, Bamberger Ranch Preserve offers a beautiful place to pause and reflect on the importance of all our efforts in the good stewardship of the earth.
Bamberger Ranch is not open to the public, but tours and workshops are offered, by reservation only, throughout the year. Click for Bamberger’s tour calendar. You can follow Bamberger Ranch on Facebook.
All material © 2006-2011 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.