On an overcast day in early February, J. David Bamberger charged down a trail at his ranch near Blanco, pointing out maples he’d planted more than a decade ago. The ninety-year-old land conservationist wanted to determine why the leaves of some of the trees turned orange last fall, while those on others became deep red or golden yellow. To collect the data he sought, he needed to clear the brush from around each maple. The former door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman and fried-chicken mogul jokes that it’s his latest in a long line of projects: Free the Trees.
Half a century ago, Bamberger, who made his fortune as an executive at Church’s Chicken, bought what he saw as the most worn-out expanse of ranchland in Blanco County. He removed introduced species, planted native grasses, and nurtured the property, slowly bringing the dry, eroded land back to life. Today Selah, Bamberger Ranch Preserve comprises 5,500 acres of lush waving grasses, flowing creeks, and rolling Hill Country landscape. It serves as an example of success in land conservation circles. Students visit to learn about nature or participate in studies, and landowners attend workshops to study land stewardship. We spoke to Bamberger as the ranch celebrates its fiftieth anniversary this year.
Texas Monthly: What’s the root of your knowledge about respecting the natural world?
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J. David Bamberger: My mom was not academically educated, but she studied and had such a respect for Mother Nature. She kept me and my brothers outdoors all the time. Mom just taught me to respect nature, to work with her, to love her. She passed that love of the natural world on to me, and it grew in me.
TM: What book has most influenced your life and environmental work?
DB: Louis Bromfield, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, wrote Pleasant Valley, a book about working on an abandoned, worn-out piece of land in Ohio and bringing it back to a level of productivity it had never seen before. I still have that book and have read it numerous times.
TM: What did you learn as a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman that helped you become a success in the fried-chicken business and here at Selah?
DB: I’ve made the statement many times that I learned more in my seventeen years as a door-to-door peddler than I did at university. The biggest thing I learned was how to handle rejection. When you’re selling door-to-door, you’ve got to knock on a lot of doors and talk to a lot of people, and you’re going to get turned down. It applies to your health, your economics, your family, everything. You have to be a positive thinker. You have to make the best of the worst. You don’t need to take everything as a personal affront. It means you go to the next door and knock with a positive attitude. That one simple thing transposed into all the other things I’ve done in my life. Fifty years ago, this ranch had the reputation of being the worst piece of real estate in Blanco County. I had to look at it as a positive, and to me it was the greatest opportunity I ever had.
TM: Why did you pick this parcel of land for your ranch?
DB: I was motivated by Bromfield’s book. He’d gone back looking for land that once belonged to his grandparents and found it eroded. When I started looking, the realtor was showing me land with landing strips, swimming pools, and tennis courts. He wasn’t showing me ranches. He was showing me houses on land. I said, “You got me wrong. I want something poorly managed.”
TM: How has this land changed in the past fifty years?
DB: Fifty years ago, there wasn’t any water, there wasn’t any grass, there weren’t any seeds. We only found 48 species of birds. Now we’ve got all those things. The latest bird count is 219 species. Now there are lakes you can swim in, creeks that run, and trees that weren’t here then.
TM: What do you most want to be remembered for?
DB: I’d like to think it’s not my days as a door-to-door man or my days in the fried-chicken business but how someone can start out with nothing and—through living an enthusiastic and optimistic life—be able to initiate something and finish something. I never inherited a penny. I want Bamberger Ranch Preserve, this 5,500 acres, to influence the life of other landowners and young people. You don’t have to be rich to do it; everyone can do what I’ve done here.
TM: What do you hope young people learn beyond the environmental work here at Selah?
DB: I tell young people they can conserve something that even their teachers can’t. I tell them, “I want you to be the person that conserves your family history.” They can do that by calling up their grandparents and asking them, “Where did my name come from? What kind of toys did my dad play with?’” I got a letter from a grandfather who said, ‘”I’m 92 years old, and my granddaughter never gave a hoot about me. Now she comes once a week with a clipboard, asking me questions.” That has motivated me from the very beginning.
TM: What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made in your life?
DB: There’s quite a few. You don’t accomplish a whole lot by hitting a home run every time. My first marriage broke up after 45 years. I probably made mistakes by working too hard or working too long or traveling. I’ve started businesses, and there have been times when I picked the wrong partners. You don’t lay back and moan and groan; you move on.
TM: Why did you build a chiroptorium, or a man-made bat cave, at Selah?
DB: I didn’t think anything about bats until [former executive director of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department] Andy Sansom took me to Bracken bat cave. From that moment I became seriously interested and learned that bats live under bridges and in culverts. It just perfectly fit in with what I had in mind here—a place working with Mother Nature instead of against her. I approached Merlin Tuttle of Bat Conservation International. I had the capital to do it. Margaret [Bamberger’s deceased second wife] said, “If it doesn’t work for bats, we can make a wine cellar out of it.” It took more than three years for the bats to say, “Hey, we like this,” but now it grows every year. Last year we had 400,000 bats. For 21 minutes you could watch them pour out.
TM: What’s your secret to long life?
DB: I’ll be 91 on June 11. I think, more than anything else, it’s an attitude. You can get up in the morning not feeling good, but it’s a new day for you. Second, it’s taking good care of yourself and not overdoing what you eat. Joanna [Bamberger’s longtime girlfriend] and I have alcohol every day: wine or what I call a Jim Rhodes [a cocktail made with Seagram’s and 7-Up]. And we get some form of exercise every day. I think it starts with attitude and realizing you need clean air and clean water and you need to get out and see, witness the miracles of nature.
TM: What now?
DB: Times change, and there’s no change in how to be a good land steward, but there are issues facing us, not just in Texas but in the entire world. One big issue is climate change. I determined ten years ago that we needed to be ahead of that by having an example to demonstrate to the state of Texas without taking a position either way. We need to establish baseline information that future scientists can use. Ten years ago, I said I’d like to do a complete biological survey of everything on this ranch, from trees and grass and flowers to deer and mountain lions and grasshoppers. What scientists tell me is the biggest predictor of the effects of climate change is insects, and they don’t take up a lot of space. So we raised more than $900,000 to build the Margaret Bamberger Research and Education Center, and we’re focusing on insects.
TM: What are some simple things we can all do to protect the environment?
DB: You can preach the gospel in your city parks that if you want to have water, you have to have grass. Grass has a root system that’s amazing. The reason we didn’t have any water here fifty years ago was because we didn’t have any grass. When we cleaned off some of the brush—not just the cedar but all kinds of woody species that take over land that’s been abused—the water came back. I preach the gospel of staying away from introduced species. What nature put here is what we need to stay with. Gather grass seeds from highway medians, bring them back to your land, and distribute them.